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Nabil Antaki, a Syrian doctor living in regime-controlled western Aleppo, describes his work in a war zone. Unlike rebel-held eastern Aleppo, the western districts are not under heavy aerial bombardments, although there are sporadic rocket attacks.
Since the summer of 2012, the northern Syrian city of Aleppo — once a teeming metropolis, which was Syria’s most populated business hub — has been split in two.
The eastern part is controlled by rebels and armed groups, including the former al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda group that has since changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. These besieged districts have been under massive daily bombardments by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as the Syrian leader’s Russian ally, sparking international condemnation. Fighters in the rebel-held areas respond with rocket fire, which is less devastating, but also causes casualties.
A gastroenterologist, Dr. Antaki could easily have left Syria, like many of his professional colleagues. But he opted to stay in Aleppo, where he runs a clinic and several humanitarian programmes. He spoke to FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from western Aleppo.
FRANCE 24: The UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday deplored the fact that there are currently no functioning hospitals in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. As a doctor in the regime-held western part, what information do you have about the situation in the east?
Dr. Antaki: To be objective, I have no direct information from people who live in the eastern districts. What I know is from indirect reports and I hear the situation for the sick and wounded there is very critical.
Now concerning the hospitals, we have repeatedly heard that the last hospital in the east had been destroyed, or that such-and-such hospital run by MSF [Doctors Without Borders] had been hit. But we are surprised: we know the city and there were not many hospitals in this part of the city before the war. Perhaps these are makeshift hospitals in buildings.
Dr. Antaki: The situation here has been the same for four and a half years. There are 1.5 million inhabitants living in the western districts, many of whom are displaced, particularly from the east. The population density is therefore very high. We are subjected to daily rounds of attacks from mortars and gas cylinders filled with nails and shrapnel. The death rate is between five to 20 people killed each day and several others wounded, although of course the situation is not comparable with what happens on the other side. But the media hardly covers it because there are no aerial bombardments, rockets do not destroy entire buildings, they just puncture holes in the walls. They cause little material damage but cause heavy human casualties. The last tragedy occurred on Sunday, when mortars hit a school and killed ten students.
F24: Has there been an intensification of rocket fire in recent weeks with the resumption of the regime’s offensive on eastern Aleppo?
Dr. Antaki: Yes, there are periods of intensification that coincide with the Syrian army bombings. For a week now, we have had shells coming in from two sides: not only from the east of the city, but also from the countryside to the west of Aleppo. Parts of western Aleppo had to be evacuated. With this new front line, the habitable areas in western Aleppo have decreased. As there are no more places to live, the people who fled the western areas were forced to seek refuge in destroyed buildings. Often they do not have walls. We are just trying to help them.
F24: The eastern part of the city is under a government siege with food, medical and humanitarian aid not coming through. What about the west?
Dr. Antaki: We’ve had several periods of siege: at the end of 2013, in November 2015 and two months ago. Nothing passed, no food, no medical aid, there were shortages.
The lack of water is the main problem. The water treatment plant is located in the rebel-held side, they cut off the water supply. Now because of the shelling, it no longer works. On both sides of the city, there are hundreds of bore wells drilled on the streets and sidewalks. It’s the same situation for the electricity supply.
F24: Are residents essentially prisoners in the city?
Dr. Antaki: To the west no, there is a road leaving the city, the Ramousseh [a southern suburb of Aleppo] road, which was taken by the army, retaken by the rebels and then taken back by the army two months ago. But it is dangerous and rarely used. In the east, there is no passage, the Syrian government has repeatedly declared [temporary] ceasefires and allowed civilians, and even rebels, to exit through corridors. But the rebels have prevented civilians from leaving and are using them as a human shields.