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5 October 2016updated 08 Sep 2021 1:18pm

Inside Aleppo: the daily battle to save lives

"There are no doctors left in Syria and the need for medical help is sometimes beyond comprehension."

By Abdulsalam Daif

Aleppo has been pounded by airstrikes for two weeks with the relentless targeting of hospitals and clinics. Over the past two months critical routes into the city have been cut off, bringing the total number of civilians living in fear of besiegement to over two million.

Dr Abdulsalam Daif is currently the Head ENT surgeon in Aleppo, as well as being the Turkey Country Director of Syria Relief and Development. He works tirelessly with the charitable organisation CARE to provide emergency medical care in Syria. 

When he is not in Syria, Dr Daif lives in Turkey with his wife and three children.



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2 October 2016 Aleppo, Syria

Today was a long day, I’m too tired to sleep. It’s difficult to have thought it possible but it’s getting harder here. This time, the trip from my home in Turkey was very bad because there were so many attacks on the road, I lost ten hours trying to reach the office. Each time I make the journey it gets worse. And yet, things are getting busier in Turkey too. Before I left for this trip, I hadn’t seen my kids for three days. 

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I’ve spent 20 hours today between the office and the hospital. That’s not abnormal; every day we work very long hours in the hospital but today was a particularly bad one. Helicopters bombed a market nearby and many civilians were hurt, including children. I think the only air attacks here are from the regime and Russia, I don’t know which one it was.

We had many casualties in the hospital. A 17-year-old boy came in with a critical neck injury, his artery had been hit so we had to operate. It took us three hours, but I think he will be ok. Then a boy of only five was brought into us with a major neurological injury. The problem is that, at the moment, we don’t have a neurologist in the hospital here, or the equipment to deal with that kind of injury so we had to refer him to Turkey. I haven’t yet heard what happened to him. Most of the time we’re operating from underground so that we have some protection from the airstrikes but, often the explosions are so big or it gets so dangerous, we have to relocate. 

At the beginning of the war I was frightened that Aya and my first child, Lana, would be targeted because of me. So many groups were threatening me, accusing me of being with one side or another or trying to force me to work for them. My answer has always been the same: “I’m a doctor, a true doctor and I will help everyone who needs my help.”

My friends told me that the regime would arrest me for working in an opposition controlled area so I moved myself and my family to live underground in the hospital to keep us safe. But in October 2012 when Aya was pregnant with our second child Hamza, I knew it was better for them to leave Syria. Now, thankfully, they are safe in Turkey.  Hamza was born on 24 December, the next day I had to leave them all and return to Syria. It’s difficult for people to understand but I have to go back. People need me. There are no doctors left in Syria and the need for medical help there is sometimes beyond comprehension. 

It’s odd to think that this has become normal life for me. It’s normal to work under these conditions, to be threatened with arrest on one side and kidnap on the other, to have to conduct major surgery underground and constantly see buildings around us reduced to rubble. In the last year alone our hospital was targeted five times. That’s become normal.

To be honest though, recently, I have started to feel afraid of the groups here in Syria. So many activists have been assassinated in the past two months. Everyone knows who I am and that I talk openly about wanting Syria to live in a democracy. People are shocked by this and want to kill anyone who does not agree with their way of thinking. The situation is so bad that you can expect anything to happen at any time.  

In the past two months, getting medical care to people has become increasingly difficult with more and more blockages or attacks on the roads preventing humanitarian access.  Normally my name is on the list of medical workers allowed to pass through the checkpoint but this time they told me I don’t have permission. So now I lose almost a whole day using another route.

This evening, after we finished for the day, we ate dinner together in the hospital and some of the staff prepared Knafe, the most delicious Syrian sweet! We planned the trips for tomorrow, which clinics we’ll visit, what to prioritise and said our goodnights at 3am.