As It Happens

'I'm not a hero anymore,' says doctor who spent years running secret hospitals in Syria

Dr. Mahmoud Hariri has lost a lot over the course of the Syrian war — his colleagues, his patients, his home. But he never lost his hope.

Dr. Mahmoud Hariri, now safe in Turkey, still co-ordinates clandestine medical training in his home country

Dr. Mahmoud Hariri is a surgeon who spent much of the Syrian war working out of clandestine, underground hospitals and medical schools. (Submitted by Mahmoud Hariri )

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Dr. Mahmoud Hariri has lost a lot over the course of the Syrian war — his colleagues, his patients, his home. But he never lost hope.

This week marks 10 years since the start of the war in Syria. Hariri has spent much of that decade working in underground hospitals and medical schools in Aleppo and Idlib, risking his life to treat people wounded by the regime's mortars, bombs and gunfire.

He now resides in Turkey with his family, but his work at home isn't done. Today the surgeon works with an NGO helping to facilitate an underground medical school in Syria, training the next generation of doctors to replace the hundreds who have fled. 

"How I survived, I don't know," Hariri told As It Happens host Carol Off. "But thank God that I'm still alive, and hope I will be back again to my country and work again and train the new generation."

Hundreds of medical workers killed 

When the war began in Syria, being a doctor meant having a target on your back — especially if you dared to treat rebel fighters or civilians wounded by the Russian-backed Syrian regime.

Just a year into the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad's government enacted a broad anti-terrorism law that doctors and human rights advocates say effectively criminalized providing medical assistance to those who oppose the regime.

And any so-called rules of war that protect medical facilities from attack were quickly thrown by the wayside. Hospitals have been been a frequent target for bombings in Syria, and doctors have been arrested, tortured and killed. 

At one point, Syrian doctors gave the locations of their clandestine facilities to the United Nations in order to create a "no-strike list." But as those institutions came under repeated fire in 2019, it became clear to doctors on the ground that Russia and Syria were using the co-ordinates for targeted attacks.

"If I'm a doctor and being captured in an Assad-regime area, I will be jailed, maybe [for] life, or be killed because I helped [treat] a wound and because I treat such patients. This is my crime," Hariri said. 

"We lost a lot of doctors, a lot of our friends, some of the good hearts, those people who stayed in spite of all of these difficulties."

Physicians For Human Rights estimates that at least 930 medical professionals were killed in Syria between 2011 and March 2021, and that more than 90 per cent of those deaths were at the hands of the regime.

Some of them were Hariri's friends. Like Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz, killed in an airtstrike on an Aleppo hospital in 2016. At the time, he was one of the last pediatricians still working in the city.

Bombing in Aleppo

4 years ago
Duration 2:38
When Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz was killed in a 2016 airstrike in Aleppo, he was one of the last pediatricians still working inside the war-torn city. "Who will treat those babies?" his friend and colleague Dr. Abdul Aziz said in an interview with AIH host Carol Off. (Ben Shannon/CBC Radio)

"We lost one of the best hearts in this world," Hariri, then using the pseudonym Abdul Aziz, told As It Happens at the time. 

"He always smiled. We asked him, 'Please just take a rest.' He said no. He's now 36. He's unmarried. He said, 'How can I marry? I would be [too] busy for my family. I would not be able to work for those babies who are crying every day."

Today a hospital in al-Salameh, Syria, bears Dr. Maaz's name

"Everybody remembers Waseem," Hariri said. "They remember this generation of those martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the lives of others."

Working in secret 

Hariri says that early in the war, when the government was enacting a brutal crackdown on protesters demanding reform, there was hope among Syrians that the international community would come to their aid.

"At the beginning of the revolution, they expected that within a couple of months, everything will be fine. We will get rid of Assad by the help of American and European countries," he said.

But it didn't take long to realize they were on their own, Hariri said. And that meant taking things into their own hands.

For Hariri, that meant working in secret medical units to treat the wounded, while training young medical students to work as trauma surgeons in the field.

Hariri is pictured here in a hospital he and his colleagues called M1, a code name to protect its location, after it was targeted by the Syrian regime in 2013. (Submitted by Mahmoud Hariri)

Before the war, he was a surgeon and a lecturer at Aleppo University Hospital, and he and his colleagues identified seven students who he suspected had sympathies for the revolution. They joined the cause, and Hariri trained them in the basics of emergency first aid over Skype, concealing their faces and voices. During demonstrations, they would wait nearby in their vehicles, then shuttle the injured to safe houses for treatment.

In the summer of 2011, Hariri's colleague who helped form the fly-by-night school was kidnapped and killed. Then three of his students disappeared, their charred bodies discovered a week later in the streets of Aleppo.

"I still remember them, still crying for them, of course," Hariri said.

During those years, Hariri also took steps to protect his own identity. For the first year of the war, he went by the code name Dr. John White. After his students were killed, he adopted the pseudonym Dr. Aziz.

Now that he and his family are in the Turkish cit of Gaziantep, he finally feels safe to live as himself again.

"I'm still dreaming to see my father and my mother, unable to see them. They are living on the other side," he said. "But this is a price. You have to pay the price. It's the price of freedom."

Leaving Syria was a difficult decision, one he made for the sake of his own children. At first, he would cross the border intermittently to provide aid. Now, he works exclusively out of Turkey. 

Throughout the interview, he sang the praises of those doctors and medical professionals who stayed behind. 

"I'm not a hero anymore," he said. "I'm just one of those team who are looking for the future."

Hariri now works with an organization called Health Information System Unit to co-ordinate Syrian medical aid, as well as the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations to help operate a clandestine medical school inside Syria, which will see its first graduating class next year. 

"We are training. We are able to build our country," he said. "We are able to prove to the whole world that Syrians can do it, can build themselves. They can do the miracles in Syria."

Wounded Syrian children receive treatment at a makeshift hospital following a reported airstrike on the industrial area of Idlib on Feb.11, 2020. (Abdulaziz/AFP/Getty Images)

He's fuelled, he said, by his memories of the war. The little boy whose life he saved, who clung to him crying, "Thank you doctor. I love you." The nine-year-old whose shoulder he amputated and who died in his arms. The father who thanked God after only one of his twin sons was shot and killed by a sniper, because at least his other child was spared the same grisly fate. 

"I'm living now on the mercy and the love of these days. In spite of the difficulties, it was the best days of my life," Hariri said.

"Because I did many things for the sake of those people, innocent, and saved hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of lives. I do believe that as a doctor, I did my best for my people. Not for the sake of just earning money from this job — for the sake of humanity."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. 

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