By Samer Attar
Samer Attar, a surgeon with Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, is a volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society and the Aleppo City Medical Council.
“Please don’t cut off my leg,” a Syrian man pleaded. He had been shopping when a missile hit a crowded market. The blast seared off his hair and charred his face. He could not see that his leg was hanging by a thread of flesh and could not be saved. His screams were amplified by the echoes of the dozens just as horrifically injured around him.
I am an American surgeon who recently spent two weeks working in an underground hospital in eastern Aleppo, Syria. I have been there a few times, and each time I go, I descend into lower depths of hell. It’s shocking how the very same inhuman conditions have been allowed to continue for years.
The path to this hell is Castello Road — which was the last remaining road leading into rebel-held Aleppo when I was there. The road smells of burned metal and rotten flesh, and it is littered with charred vehicles. Plumes of smoke scatter the horizon. Gutted homes with pancaked roofs, exposed wires and twisted rebar line the sides. At every moment, you feel you may be hit by a bomb or a rocket.
Inside the city, the screech of jets, the whirring of helicopters, the vibrating blasts of mortar shells and barrel bombs, the incessant ricochet of bullets — these sounds and sensations rarely stop. Civilians still manage to live there. They would rather die at home than live in a tent or drown in a boat, or they are simply too poor, too crippled, too sick or too defiant to leave their homes.
The hospital where I worked has been attacked so many times by airstrikes that it has been driven literally underground — with a ramp leading into the basement. Scalpels are dull, anesthesia is a luxury, sterility is an approximation.
Inside, the scenes are grim.
On July 1, a rocket hit a nearby marketplace. The hospital shook from the blast. The victims were not terrorists or soldiers. They were civilians shopping for the upcoming Eid celebration. Twenty-five people were killed. Dozens more were injured. There were not enough beds, so patients were placed on floors smeared with blood and body parts, with barely a place to step. Dead bodies were piled into the street to make room for incoming wounded.
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