In the summer of 2013, I was in the north of Syria on a mission as then-medical director for the charity Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHFS) to assess the quality of our health care services. I was accompanied by Saleyha, a fellow doctor, humanitarian, and journalist. As we dodged Islamic State group checkpoints and visited a number of frontline towns, news arrived of the chemical attack on Ghouta. Our phones were soon buzzing with updates about the atrocity, and horrifying images came in thick and fast.
The regime’s barbarity was known to us, but it had now crossed President Barack Obama’s red line and U.S. retaliation seemed imminent. My father called me, worried. “You need to leave,” he said. “U.S. destroyers are in the Mediterranean, and they’re ready to take out (the regime’s) air force.” I could not celebrate the prospect of yet more bombs falling on my country, but I did want to see the butchery end.
What followed, however, was silence and inaction. And the consequences were catastrophic. I know because I was there to witness it.
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2013, Saleyha and I were tending to patients at HIHFS field hospital in Atareb, west of Aleppo. Around 8 miles to our east, at the Iqra summer school in Urem al-Kubra, 100 children were in attendance for their daily lessons, unaware that a Sukhoi Su-24 fighter was taking off from the T-4 airbase in Homs and heading toward them with deadly intent. It did not take long for us to see the effects of its infernal payload.
At the time, we had been tending to a seven-month-old baby who had been carried in by his distressed father. The baby had suffered burns from a bomb that had fallen next to their house. As we were treating him, we heard the screech of cars, and dozens of severely burnt children started pouring out of them. They said their school yard had been hit by a war plane. I stood in shock, watching the scene unfold. It was an assault on the senses — the rapidly rising heat, the gut-wrenching smell of burnt flesh mixed with unknown chemicals, and children who looked like they’d come straight out of a horror movie.
The Syrian conflict is commonly referred to as a “civil war.” But this description misleads by suggesting a kind of parity. From its start, this has been a war on civilians, and health services and medical professionals have been systematically targeted. To date, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights has corroborated 595 attacks on at least 350 separate medical facilities and documented the killing of 930 medical personnel. When I was entering Syria and registering with The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations at the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, I was asked if I had made a will. It was a sobering moment, but I had felt no fear. I was not contemplating death when I wrote my will, said a prayer, and went in. On the day of the school attack, for the first time, I thought this might be the day I die.
This was not how things were supposed to turn out. I remember those early days when I watched peaceful protests erupt across Syria from my London home. I was amazed. I had never felt such energy from my compatriots, such power! We chanted: “Hourieh! Karameh!” — Freedom! Dignity! — at the top of our voices. “It was the best year of my life,” my cousin says, beaming at the recollection. “It was like a festival — men, women, children, music, food, and fearlessness — we had finally found our voice.”
But the good humor and camaraderie of the protesters were met with bullets; the protesters, in turn, changed their demand to an end to the regime.
The 10 years since have taken a gargantuan toll on Syria. And I am haunted by memories that I know are not mine alone. There was the phone call from my cousin to tell me our family fields had been napalmed; there are the images of my hometown of Baba Amr being shelled; the sight of our family, neighbors, and friends being encircled by regime forces; the image of a doctor running with a little girl bleeding in his arms; my dad on the phone from Damascus, saying “don’t worry, everything is fine.”
By the summer of 2012, it was already a catastrophe. So, I did the only thing I could and joined the humanitarian effort. I’d spend my evenings and weekends after my full-time work as a consultant anesthetist in the National Health Service gathering medical aid and designing new makeshift hospitals in collaboration with frontline medics. During my holidays, I joined diaspora Syrians to deliver medical aid and work on the front line of our bleeding motherland.
On my first mission to northern Syria, I was met by thousands of displaced people attempting to hide from the sun’s glare in the shade of olive trees. Everywhere I went, I’d be surrounded by desperate people demanding food, medicine, shelter, money. It’s one thing to see it in the news, quite another to look a man in the face as he holds his three young children in his arms, fighting tears, imploring you for help. “Madam, don’t think that because I’m dirty and dusty that I’m an ignorant man. I’m an English teacher. We had a good life, a house, and two cars, and now we have nothing — please help me find a job, anything, so I can take care of my family.”
On a mission in January 2013, I visited a makeshift displacement camp near Kah, Idlib. The front line was constantly shifting, displacing even more people. I felt overwhelmed and angry. That’s when I called Saleyha. “Where the fuck are the journalists? Why aren’t they here seeing what I’m seeing? Why aren’t they telling the world about our suffering?”
I didn’t know then that this would be a life-changing phone call. In August 2013, when I returned to Syria, it was with a BBC Panorama crew.
Across Syria, to treat patients in relative safety, we had set up makeshift, incognito health facilities. On the day of the school attack, we were in such a place, an abandoned villa on the outskirts of the town. It quickly became chaotic. And since there was no one else to manage it, I took charge. I drew on all the emergency training I’d had and made it up where I had to.
We had no idea what had happened. The Ghouta attack was still on our minds, and the unknown white powder that covered the victims and the strange smell made us initially suspect a chemical attack, so we prioritized decontamination. Witnesses later described to us a ball of fire dropping from the sky: The children had been targeted with an incendiary weapon, likely a thermobaric bomb or white phosphorus, which causes catastrophic burns.
All the teenagers had extensive second- and third-degree burns. We knew they’d be losing fluids and their pain would worsen, and many would need to be sedated and put on a ventilator as their airways swelled from internal burns, but in our rudimentary facility there was no oxygen, ventilators, anesthesia nurses, or properly equipped ambulances. Our skills and knowledge were of little use without the tools, equipment, and resources.
A young woman, Siham, let out a high-pitched scream, beseeching her father to make the pain stop, as he looked on helplessly. He begged me, in turn, to help her. “Treat her as your daughter.” I did all I could, but it wasn’t looking good for her. After we’d stabilized the victims and given them the best treatment we could, Siham and the other victims were transferred to hospitals in Turkey for the intensive care that we couldn’t provide. The BBC was there to witness all this.
The BBC team raced to edit the footage to get it on the news as the British parliament prepared to vote on military action against the regime. Naively, I thought that when people saw the footage, when world leaders and decision-makers heard the screams, when they saw the barbarity of this war on civilians, they’d do something to put a stop to it. Instead, there was silence. Inaction.
The regime militias have a slogan: “Assad, or we burn the country.” Few expected, however, that to preserve Assad’s power, schools and children, too, would be burned.
And as Western powers retreated from their narrow red line, the regime took it as a green light for quotidian murder. The targeting of schools, like that of hospitals, became a deliberate strategy of war — a strategy designed to inflict the most pain and fear on a people brazen enough to demand freedom. The message was clear: Nothing is sacred, nowhere is safe. The regime militias have a slogan: “Assad, or we burn the country.” Few expected, however, that to preserve Assad’s power, schools and children, too, would be burned.
Students, education providers, schools, and universities are protected under international humanitarian law, and 107 states around the world have signed a declaration committing themselves to protecting children and education facilities in armed conflicts. These protocols exist for our collective protection. When it breaks for one, it breaks for all. Allowing these attacks to occur with impunity signals to those with no respect for human rights that they, too, can do the same without suffering consequences.
On that day at the Iqra school, 11 children were killed instantly, and the rest were left with lasting physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual scars. And this was only one of 1,103 attacks on educational facilities since 2011, which have left 40% of Syria’s schools damaged and nonfunctioning and 2.4 million children without an education. So far, almost 30,000 children have been killed in this war.
The day the survivors from the school bombing were evacuated to Turkey was the last I was able to hear of them — that is, until recently, when I returned with the BBC to learn their fate. I was heartbroken to learn that Siham had passed on after six weeks of intensive care and over a dozen major surgeries. Her body had been too ravaged by the burns.
I spoke to her father, Abu Mahmoud, a gentle, spiritual man who told me he had died a hundred times a day watching over his daughter as her life ebbed slowly and painfully. “I would read her Quran by her bed. She would cry, I would cry, the nurses would cry. They could see our deep bond; she was my firstborn. She understood me like no one else does.”
Abu Mahmoud values knowledge and education above all, and his biggest concern is that a whole generation, millions of children, know nothing but war. “I am terrified each time I send my twins to school, will I see them as I saw Siham, their skin melting in front of my eyes?” He tells me many parents have simply decided to not send their children to school or are doing everything they can to leave the country.
The epic failure of the international community in stopping bombs and protecting children over the past 10 years has made many of us wonder if we can rely on them at all. Perhaps it’s time to abandon these expectations and develop our own resources and protections. A group of Syrian and international organizations is already working on such an initiative with a plan to protect 150 high-risk schools serving 61,000 children in Idlib. They seek to leverage a threat-prediction system that is already being used by 130 hospitals at high risk of aerial bombardment. Since 2016, it has been shown to reduce lethal injury by up to 30% and helped over 250,000 civilians benefit from reduced traumatic anxiety.
The system detects and tracks incoming threats using data from remote sensors, observers, and social media and sends timely warnings to civilians via air raid sirens. Each school receives a solar panel for electricity, internet connectivity, evacuation training, and a program of trauma recovery therapy for the children and staff. This gives the children and their teachers seven to 10 minutes of advance notice before an attack, so they can evacuate to safety.
Syrian children have been robbed of everything sacred and essential, including their childhood. I am still haunted by what I have seen. As a doctor, there is only so much you can control. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” If world leaders have chosen silence, at least the rest of us can find our voices and pledge to save Syria’s schools. The future of so many of Syria’s children has been taken. The least we can do is to give them a chance at life — the seven minutes they need to get to safety.
To read more on how Rola is helping save Syria schools, visit savesyriasschools.org