The Current

Doctors forced to decide who lives or dies in besieged Syrian suburb

Posted: December 13, 2017
Last Updated: December 13, 2017

A wounded boy is seen in hospital in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, Dec. 3, 2017. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

Story transcript

At a time when Geneva hotels are crammed with officials taking part in the eighth round of Syria peace talks, the people in the Syrian city of eastern Ghouta are under siege and forgotten.

Many children in eastern Ghouta are suffering from acute malnutrition. (Unicef, used with permission)

The Syrian government continues to block food, aid and medical supplies from the city.


Violence has closed schools down, children are malnourished and doctors are left in a desperate situation to try to save lives with almost no resources.

"One day you will find treatment enough for one child but you have two who needs treatment, and then you have to decide who will survive," says  Dr. Mohamad Katoub, who initially was trained as a dentist but in 2011 started to work in a medical capacity after doctors fled the country.

There are about 40,000 children in this area and about 600 newborns a month that do not have access to baby milk, vaccinations or even diapers, according to Katoub.

Civil defence and civilians carry a wounded man in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Syria, Dec. 3, 2017. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about a time when there was not enough electricity and incubators had to run on electric generators. Doctors had to make a devastating choice.

"We decided that night that we had to stop one of two incubator units ... depriving newborn babies from being treated in an incubator that they need, and we lost lives that time because of this," Katoub says.

These impossible life and death decisions have left him with a heavy heart.


"I don't know if we can forgive ourselves as doctors to make those decisions. This is very hard to face as a doctor," Katoub tells Tremonti.

A wounded boy is treated in hospital in Douma after an airstrike in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, in Syria, Nov. 27, 2017. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

And with what little medical supplies are available, there's also the decision to declare what patients need it the most.  Katoub says making that call who is "the most needy patient" is never easy.

He argues these challenges shouldn't be left to the doctors to face.

"The WHO is only 10 km away from us. They should hold this responsibility ... with the staff there, who will be treated and who will be left to die."

Leaving eastern Ghouta 

Katoub was born in eastern Ghouta and lived his whole there until 2014 when the siege became too much for him and his family. He says he was always scared his son might be injured because of the attacks in the area. 


A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Syria, Dec. 3, 2017. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

He says he knew his family had to leave when he came home one night to find his wife crying because their son was bleeding, not because he was injured but as a result of using a plastic bag as a diaper.

"I decided that this child deserved to live in another place, deserved to live in a safe place, deserved to grow up and get a good education — at least to get food, vaccination," he says.

"His basic rights."

Today Katoub is the advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society in Turkey. 

The Current contacted the consulate for Syria in Vancouver for comment, but received an automatic reply that they were on vacation until the new year. 

Listen to the full conversation above — including Valerie Szybala with the Syria Institute, a driving force behind Siege Watch, a project which monitors conditions in Syria's besieged areas. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar and Samira Mohyeddin.