Nabil Antaki, the Syrian doctor who refused to leave Aleppo
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When the Syrian civil war brutally hit Aleppo, Doctor Nabil Antaki was urged to flee for his life. But he chose to stay. Interviewed by FRANCE 24, the doctor recounts the horrors of war but also the strong solidarity that's sprung up in his hometown.
For the past five years, the northern city of Aleppo has been the scene of unimaginable horrors, where violent and premature deaths have become a part of daily life. Still, in an interview with FRANCE 24 during his brief visit to Paris, the doctor spoke of hope and why he decided to stay – even as the majority of his fellow colleagues took flight.
“I couldn’t leave,” the gastroenterologist said, noting that even though he did have the means to escape, there were many Aleppo residents who were not as fortunate.
“Those who have stayed need care, and they need hope,” he said, recalling how even his children, who now live in the United States, begged him to just pack up and leave.
“I live in Aleppo, in the Mouhafaz neighbourhood,” he said with certain pride in his voice, referring to the west of the war-ravaged city that he calls his home.
Responding to the horrors of war
Since the war came to Syria’s second-largest city in July 2012, Aleppo has been divided into two parts: the east, which is held by rebels and armed groups such as the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front, and the west, which is now the territory of the Syrian regime. While government forces consistently pound the rebel-held districts, the Islamist militants are firing back with rockets, mortars and deadly gas cylinders. The civilians have been caught in the line of fire. And they are paying a high price.
“The city’s west has around 1.5 million inhabitants now. About half a million of them are displaced. Most of them fled the city’s east in July 2012,” he said.
According to the United Nations, more than 8 million people are currently displaced in Syria itself. Although some of them have been lucky enough to return to their homes, the majority of them have lost everything, including their houses and any source of previous income streams.
“The cost of life has multiplied by 13, and there’s no [economic] activity. Such conditions make it difficult – even for those who used to be rich – to make ends meet.
About 80 percent of those who are ill are poor and in need of the food baskets they are given in order to survive,” the doctor explained, noting that the bulk of people who could ever afford to leave the city have, indeed, left.
Prior to the war, Antaki had a thriving Aleppo practice. But today, he spends most of his time helping out the Catholic humanitarian aid group Frères Maristes bleus d’Alep (the blue Maristes brotherhood of Aleppo).
Although the NGO has been present in the city for decades, the war has seen the number of people in need soar. Today, the aid group has between 60 and 70 volunteers “depending on the month and the departures”, Antaki joked, adding that the organisation currently runs five rescue projects and five educational projects.
“We supply accommodation and food for those who cannot provide it for themselves. We treat them too, [and] we teach children, and even adults. There’s so much to do,” he said.
The group is financed through donations and support from charities, including French aid group the Baroudeurs de l’Espoir.
Even water has become an invaluable commodity in Aleppo, and the Maristes brotherhood do their best to try to provide it. The “I’m thirsty” project, for example, was launched to ensure water access and was accomplished thanks to the group investing in a number of small trucks that carried water tanks.
The western part of Aleppo in particular has suffered several water shortages in the past few years – sometimes lasting for months on end. The main reason is due to the simple fact that the city’s water treatment is located on rebel-held turf, and the militants regularly cut the water supplies to the regime-held sections of the city.
A painful past. An uncertain future
“Civilians wounded in war” is another project run by Antaki’s aid group. Making no distinction between political or religious affiliations, the project ensures that people who have been seriously wounded in the conflict receive free care at the private Saint-Louis hospital.
According to Antaki, there are now only two public hospitals still operating in the west of the city – both of which are overrun with patients and suffer a significant lack of resources.
“When somebody who is seriously injured arrives there, they will die because of the [waiting] times. Although it’s hardly talked about, deadly mortars fall on West Aleppo each and every day and there are periods, like in the past few weeks, when they practically rain down there. Many people are losing their lives.”
The doctor’s eyes darken with pain as he talks about the loss of his own brother who was killed when al Nusra militants attacked the bus he was travelling on as he was returning from Beirut, in Lebanon, to his native Aleppo.
With a lack of both clean water and adequate medical equipment, providing medical care in Aleppo is no easy task.
“The difficulties of [properly] treating people are real, but not impossible to overcome. With few means we still manage to provide adequate medicines,” the doctor said.
“We’re fortunate, because we have a well at the hospital. But we are suffering from the embargo and the sanctions imposed in the parts of Syria controlled by the regime,” he said, recounting how it took him almost a year and a half to have a piece of medical equipment shipped from Japan. Antaki is a fervent supporter of a lifting of the sanctions and has launched a petition to have them removed.
“At the moment we’re importing material from China and India because [these countries] are not tied to the embargo.”
Antaki said one of the most painful consequences of the conflict, however, is the toll it has taken on Syria’s children.
“The children suffer the most. Many displaced children don’t receive schooling anymore and so we teach them in buildings that we have transformed into schools.”
Although Antaki works for what is often described as a “humanitarian” aid group, the doctor said it should really be referred to as a movement of “solidarity”.
“When volunteers want to join us, we always make sure to underscore the importance of standing by and supporting the people. We know each and every person. Because people aren’t numbers: they have names, faces and backgrounds. Each and every one of them has suffered a painful past and is facing an uncertain future. And we help them keeping their dignity,” the doctor explained, adding there is good reason for him to remain hopeful:
“Syrians are the champions of resilience and so life continues. [Our] children go to school and they revise for exams, older students go to university, we celebrate and we find a way to continue to live life.”
This article was adapted from the original in French.