Dr Mohamed is a surgeon based in Kafranbel, northwest Syria. On 5 May, his hospital was bombed out of service.
My name is Mohamed and until 5 May, I worked as a surgeon at the Kafranbel Surgical Hospital in northwest Idlib. Our hospital was the only one for miles, serving people from northern Hama countryside to southern Idlib and eastern Maarat al-Nu’man. On Sunday, those thousands of people were robbed of medical care and support when warplanes—believed to be Russian—bombed the hospital out of service. In total, 13 medical facilities have been destroyed in the last 12 days.
Our hospital has long been a target of the regime and Russia’s. Since its founding in 2011, it had been attacked at least 100 times and completely forced out of service 15 times. After the last attack, we went underground, hiding the hospital beneath its old, bombed-out site. From there, our team of 30 doctors, technicians and nurses continued treating those injured from the conflict while also providing routine healthcare and treatment for those in need.
Two weeks ago, our workload dramatically increased when the regime and Russia escalated their attacks on northwest Syria. We began receiving large numbers of injured civilians, mainly from villages in northern Hama and southern Idlib before the airstrikes started targeting Kafranbel too. We’d work for hours treating the injured; sometimes I’d work through the day and night helping the wounded.
On Sunday, I went to the hospital early in the morning, because the bombing is usually less intensive in the early hours. All day we received injured people, taking in around 20 patients and their worried relatives. In the afternoon, news came in that Has hospital, an underground facility in northern Hama had been bombed. I prayed that all the staff and patients had made it out safely.
At around 5:30pm, two hours after we heard the news about Has, I was taking a short break and talking on the phone to my fiancée when four missiles hit the hospital’s entrance. The noise, the explosions—it felt like the apocalypse. I ran to check on my patients, many of them unable to move without help, as another airstrike hit the hospital’s roof, cutting the electricity.
Dust began to fill the rooms and we started to choke, unable to see in the dark nor use our phones to call for help. People began to panic but as hospital staff, we had been in this position before and had oxygen tanks ready to help them breathe. We were so worried about them and felt helpless, what can you do in a situation like this? A third hit came and then a fourth, with only three to five minutes between each strike. We tried to keep the patients calm but we didn’t know what was going to happen to us, nor when the bombing would stop.
Minutes after the fourth strike, when the warplanes must have moved on, the White Helmets came rushing in along with medics from our hospital who had been off-site when the missiles fell. Some patients, maybe in shock, ran out onto the streets to escape the hospital. One photo of a patient leaving the facility still in his robe and with an IV drip went viral on social media. Those with critical injuries were evacuated to the nearest hospital, 15 kilometres away in Maraat al-Nu’man.
Not everyone survived. One man who was visiting his relative at the hospital died in the attack and another was severely injured.
The attack on our hospital has further increased the pressure on other hospitals in the northwest, which are dealing with a high number of casualties and a decreasing number of medical facilities. Many medics have fled with their families to safer areas in the region, worsening an already dire situation. On 6 May, Idlib’s Health Directorate announced a state of emergency.
My colleagues and I have decided to stay and wait for the hospital to be rebuilt so we can get back to serving our communities. Such a task is impossible though while the bombings continue. It breaks my heart to be unable to help. If the critically injured cannot receive immediate medical attention and must instead travel to hospitals further away, they are put in grave danger. The situation we face is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Nobody can doubt that targeting hospitals and medical facilities is a war crime. The right to healthcare is a basic and inviolable one and medical centres are proscribed targets under international law. It takes a particular kind of cruelty to bomb civilians and then destroy their access to treatment. This has to stop, the ongoing war crimes of the regime and Russia must end.