Eastern Aleppo's Only Ophthalmologist Sees Ravages Of Syria's War

Oct 7, 2016
Originally published on October 7, 2016 5:24 pm

Abdulkhalek Dabaa, one of fewer than 30 doctors left in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, is the only remaining ophthalmologist in the eastern part of the city. Medical supplies are scarce, so he has resorted to making his own eyedrops. His wife, an obstetrician, relies on folk remedies for her patients.

Some 275,000 civilians are living under siege in eastern Aleppo, and Dabaa says he sees about 85 patients every day. Despite the war, he and his family are committed to staying. "We prefer to die here in our homes, in our houses — not to leave it," he tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.


Interview Highlights

On conditions in Aleppo

When the cease-fire end[ed] — every minute, every single hour, we have rockets, huge rocket, bombs — barrel bombs. It's hell.

[My daughter] is afraid. Afraid of the warplane, afraid to go to the street alone, and she has to stay here in the room, which is like a shelter in the house. ... She sometimes speaks about nightmares. She saw a warplane, she saw a rocket, she saw dead bodies. It's not the life for a child. It's horrible for a child.

The streets is full of stones, with cars burned. Burnt cars with fragments and every two or three buildings, one of them is totally destroyed.

In front of us in the street, the rocket in one car with the three persons — all of them was burned alive. [A woman was] injured and her child — the head is separated from the body of the child. There is very miserable cases here in Aleppo.

On why he and others choose to stay

We had many chances to leave Aleppo from the beginning of the war but we preferred to stay here.

If there is a safe pathway to the people to leave Aleppo, maybe half of the people here — they will leave. But the others will stay. Will stay and they will suffer from these rockets and they will not leave their homes because if we go out, the regime will take our houses, our properties.

[If we leave] we will be in a camp or we live in a tent. What life is that? It's miserable life. So we prefer to die here in our homes, in our houses — not to leave it.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has come to this in the city of Aleppo. The United Nations special envoy to Syria is making an unusual offer. Staffan de Mistura points out that of the 275,000 people living under siege in eastern Aleppo, only about a thousand are jihadi fighters, who Russian and Syrian forces say are their targets.

De Mistura says he will personally lead those fighters out of the city so the Assad regime has no more excuse to destroy that part of Aleppo. This proposal, offered in despair, could be the beginning of a truce - or not. There seems to be no end to the carnage there. Some are comparing this to the siege of Sarajevo. Over the next few minutes, we're going to be hearing from a doctor in the city of Aleppo.

GREENE: Our colleague Renee Montagne reached him at his home on Skype. And just a warning, there is a graphic description midway through their conversation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: When we spoke, Abdulkhalek Dabaa told me that now he's the last ophthalmologist left in eastern Aleppo. He's seeing about 85 patients a day, seeing everything from eye infections to shrapnel wounds.

One young patient lost both his eyes after being pulled from the rubble in an aerial bombing that killed his parents. The siege has meant food is scarce. But medicine is nearly impossible to come by. Dr. Dabaa has resorted to making his own eyedrops.

His wife, an obstetrician we've spoken with, said she's had to revert to folk remedies. So I ask him if a brief cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia a few weeks ago had changed anything.

ABDULKHALEK DABAA: This cease-fire - nothing entered Aleppo. Nothing - nothing at all. And when the cease-fire end, every minute, every single hour, we have a rocket - a huge rocket - bombs - barrel bombs. It's hell.

MONTAGNE: Hell.

DABAA: Yes.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like maybe food is being cooked behind you.

DABAA: (Laughter). Yes. Yes. I came about a half-hour to my house. So my wife prepared the food.

MONTAGNE: What are you able to get to eat these days?

DABAA: Rice - rice and some (speaking Arabic).

FARIDA: Cans.

DABAA: Cans - some cans. Some biscuits, some - there's some meats.

MONTAGNE: You have a young daughter, Dr. Dabaa. What is life like for her? Because I know there are so many children in eastern Aleppo.

DABAA: She is afraid - afraid of the war plane, afraid to go to the street alone. And she is a - stay in the room, which is like a shelter in the house.

MONTAGNE: Far away from the street?

DABAA: Yes. It's more safe. She sometimes speak about nightmares. She saw a war plane. She saw a rocket. She saw the dead bodies. It's not the life for a child. It's horrible for a child.

MONTAGNE: When you look outside or when you're walking - traveling - to work, what do you see?

DABAA: The streets is full with stores, with burned cars, with fragments. And every two or three buildings - one of them is totally destroyed.

MONTAGNE: So it must, though, feel, then, so arbitrary. Any building could be hit. Anybody in a car could be hit.

DABAA: Of course - anybody - anybody. In front of us in the street, you look at - in one car with three persons, all of them was burned alive. No one can take them from the car - no one. And one woman was walking in the street - she injured. And her child - the head is separated from the body of this child. There is very miserable cases here in Aleppo.

MONTAGNE: When we spoke with Dr. Farida, your wife, some time ago - a few weeks ago - I asked her about leaving Aleppo because things are so bad.

DABAA: No, we can't. We had many chances to leave Aleppo from the beginning of the war. But we prefer to stay here. We grow among these people. We can't leave them.

MONTAGNE: You know, on the outside, people, when they hear about the bombing - and the pictures are often terrible - those are the ones we see - people do ask, you know, what keeps folks in Aleppo? Why do people stay?

DABAA: Maybe they have relatives here, and they are connected to their birth place.

MONTAGNE: And that transcends the danger or the scarcity.

DABAA: If there is a safe pathway to the people to leave Aleppo, maybe half of the people here - they will leave. But the others will stay - will stay and will suffer from these rockets. And they will not leave their homes because if we go out, the regime will take our houses, our properties.

MONTAGNE: And then you never could come back.

DABAA: Yes. We will be in a camp. Or we live in a tent. What life is that? It's a miserable life. So we prefer to die here in our homes, in our houses - not to leave it.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for spending the time to talk to us.

DABAA: Thank you, Renee. And I hope it will be good days. We can speak later if the situation was good, inshallah.

MONTAGNE: Inshallah. Abdulkhalek Dabaa is one of about 30 doctors serving the 275,000 people now trapped in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.