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Air strikes in Syria are devastating this generation of children: surgeon

Dr. Anas al-Kassem is a trauma surgeon who works in rebel-held Syria. In his work he sees that children are the most deeply affected by the crisis and those whose futures are devastated by the conflict. Listen to his interview with Checkup guest host Laura Lynch.
Bab al-Hawa hospital in northern Syria was damaged by a missile and is operating at 50 per cent capacity. (Provided by Anas al-Kassem)

Last week, an air strike, attributed to Russian planes, hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria. With the increase of attacks on hospitals and schools in the region, Dr. Anas al-Kassem says it is imperative that movement is made to stop air strikes.

Al-Kassem is a trauma surgeon and helped found the largest trauma hospital in rebel-held Syria. He spoke with Checkup guest host Laura Lynch about his perspective on the conflict.

Checkup guest host Laura Lynch speaks with Syrian-Canadian trauma surgeon Dr. Anas al Kassem, who set up the largest trauma hospital in rebel-held Syria. 10:35

Laura Lynch: There's been a lot of discussion about what role Canada should be playing in the conflict. I wonder if I could hear from you, what's happening on the ground now?

Dr. Anas al-Kassem has helped set up field hospitals in Syria and he believes the Canadian government should send funds to support them. (CBC)
 Anas al-Kassem
: Every time we go there, it goes from bad to worse. There are only a few N.G.O.'s left in the country and unfortunately the UN literally has no role. Every time we go is there, we see more complex injuries and less medical supplies and less access to certain areas. Especially because of the government's ongoing siege. Unfortunately, we see more civilians than before. Our data shows that in the last year, 90 per cent of the injuries are civilians—whereas, it used to be about 80 per cent in 2014. There's still a lot of displaced people that have no access to healthcare whatsoever.

LL: The people that are coming to the hospital that you helped establish—what kinds of injuries and illnesses are you seeing?

AAK: These days we are seeing mainly blast injuries due to air strikes. We don't see the simple gunshot wounds, that we're used to treating in North America or Europe. We see very complicated, devastating, blast injuries due to shrapnel, chemical weapons and air strikes. Unfortunately, we lose many patients right at the door of the emergency departments because they will have no ability to survive beyond a certain bleeding point. And about 25 per cent of the patients we treat here are children. So it is it is very devastating we've seen an awful bloodshed mainly because of air strikes. 

LL: You have not escaped attack yourself as there have been attacks on your hospital . Doctors, nurses, and other health care providers have been under threat from the Assad regime. There are now reports Russian attacks on hospitals. How does that add to the challenge?

AAK: It really made things more challenging for us—for the medical team working on the ground. We try to help everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, but unfortunately the areas not controlled by the government have been targeted, particularly the hospitals.

I was in Geneva in December and I presented our data, which shows that after the Russian air crafts joined the mission at the end of September 2015, 15 hospitals were directly targeted by air strikes. Just a week ago, in northern Aleppo a maternity hospital, which has babies and moms, was severely damaged by air strikes. What does a hospital like that have to do with the war?

LL: Have you ever personally been targeted for your work there?

AAK: I haven't been targeted personally so far, but our hospital, which is right at the northern border with Turkey, was targeted last summer and in 2014. Fortunately, we did not lose any staff there. But hospitals have been targeted everywhere, particularly in the areas not controlled by the government or ISIS. 

LL: You mentioned the number of children that you've treated in the hospital. You came to Canada in 2002 so your childhood experience of your country is very different from the children that are living there now. What impact do you think this conflict is having on them?

AAK: It has been horrible since the U.S. led coalition started. Things have become worse. I really don't believe the air strikes are going to solve the problem. We currently have had 148,000 visitors to the hospital and more than 17,000 admissions on a monthly basis. And children make up about 25 per cent of the admissions. On top of that we see five million children that they have no access to school. What kind of a future you think there's going to play? If anything they are going to be recruited to the extremists whether to the regime side or to the ISIS side. This is going to be a real catastrophe for this generation.

LL: I wonder what your answer is to the question that we are asking today about whether the government is right to pull out its jets from this mission?

AAK: For the first time, honestly, I'm proud to be Canadian. In the 10 years prior to this past election, I haven't seen serious efforts to help the Syrian people. But in the last couple of months we have seen that, by bringing the refugees to Canada through the new government, which is a great initiative. 

But don't forget there is about six to seven million internally displaced people inside Syria. They're not going to cross the border; they're not going to come to Canada. We have to try to support the people inside of Syria and supporting them is not going to happen by continuing the air strikes. As I said, the mission by the U.S. led coalition did not help. On top of that there are ongoing air strikes by Russia and the government. We have to stop the air strikes because they are not going to solve the problem. We have tried it now for more than a couple of years and it did not solve anything. It may be that it is really causing more suffering and more displacement and more refugees. 

We have to stop the air strikes and the try to come back to our values and our ethics in Canada. We have to try to help with the with the humanitarian work, increasing the capacity and by training the people there.

LL: But won't an end to the bombing give a free hand to Isis?

AAK: Well you're right but we have to look for the root of the problem. That is the dictatorship that started cracking down on the people five years ago on the Syrian people's freedom. ISIS only came onto the scene in 2014. We have to first come down on the root of the problem by getting rid of the regime, and getting a new democratic government which is acceptable to all countries in the area. After that you can really target the ISIS, by creating stability.

Laura Lynch's and Dr. Anas al-Kassem's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ayesha Barmania.

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