In war-torn northwest Syria, earthquake survivors struggle to find medical care |  60 Minutes

In war-torn northwest Syria, earthquake survivors struggle to find medical care | 60 Minutes


After February’s cataclysmic series of earthquakes, the world poured emergency relief into Turkey and Syria. But some of those who suffered the most were nearly impossible to reach. they were already fighting to survive a war zone. Recently, we traveled to this battleground in northwest Syria to meet an American medical charity that braved the odds — bringing hands of healing and hope.

In the night, February 6th, death seemed a certainty… and life, a revelation.

Through northwest Syria, 10 thousand buildings crumbled. In towns that stood for millennia, the catastrophe was biblical.

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Earthquakes in February devestated Syria.

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But rescue did not assure survival. Ambulances raced to a medical system in critical condition itself after 12 years of bombed hospitals and murdered doctors.

Dr. Samer Attar: There’s a chilling saying I learned in Syria that you kill one doctor it’s like killing a hundred soldiers. Because if you kill a doctor, you kill a nurse, you kill a paramedic, you blow up an ambulance, you destroy a hospital — you’re not just killing those individuals, or groups of individuals, you’re just taking away hope from a community.

Samer Attar is an orthopedic surgeon from Chicago who volunteers for the Syrian American Medical Society — a US charity that operates 13 hospitals in the warzone with a Syrian staff of 23-hundred.

Dr. Samer Attar: So, when the war broke out in Syria — health care providers, the health care infrastructure, came under attack because war crimes work. Crimes against humanity work. If you can get away with it, you can win.

He’s talking about relentless attacks on health care ordered by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin who sent his military to Syria in a prelude to Ukraine. the war began in 2011 with an uprising to end the Assad family’s 52-year dictatorship. but Assad responded by leveling his country with artillery, chemical weapons and explosive barrels dropped from planes. Fourteen million have lost their homes. Half a million are dead. Northwest Syria is in rebel hands and this is where we met the Syrian American Medical Society known as SAMS.

Scott Pelley: How many surgeries did you do?

Dr. Samer Attar: So, I did 23 on my first day. And I remember crying myself to sleep the first night. Because, it was just, the suffering was just so overwhelming.

We had met Samer Attar six years earlier where SAMS was building a hospital in a cave to shield him from attack. Today, the hospital is complete and proved its endurance in the quakes. Amany Jaqlan is a SAMS nurse in the black and white hijab head scarf.

Amany Jaqlan (Arabic translation): I was shocked at the scene…

She told us.

Amany Jaqlan (Arabic translation): Bodies were scattered on the floor, and there were [so many]. I couldn’t have imagined the extent of destruction and the number of victims.

The number, in northwest Syria, was 45-hundred dead. In the cave hospital, the lost were laid in hallways where a quick examination could change a life forever and disbelief suspended sorrow if only for a moment.

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Many needed medical care after the Syria earthquakes.

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Dr. Samer Attar: I remember a 22-year-old that got engaged the day before the earthquake and the next day his whole family was gone. I remember a 16-year-old who was paralyzed from the neck down, and her family was gone and she’s on a mechanical ventilator in a hospital in Syria. Who’s going to take care of her? And two orphaned teenage sisters, both with wounds in both legs requiring multiple surgeries, and a four-year-old kid with a traumatic brain injury on a ventilator.

Dr. Samer Attar: These nurses and doctors are the bravest people I’ve ever met. They were already traumatized by barrel bombs and chemical weapons. But when they talk about the earthquake, I’d never really seen so much fear, and panic and anxiety.

We found those emotions in the story of a woman rescued from this collapsing apartment building. Thirty five-year-old Zainab Ali al-Najib arrived at the cave hospital to tell Amany Jaqlan a story she could hardly believe.

Amany Jaqlan (Arabic translation): I remember a woman who came to me to say that all of her children were dead.

Rescue workers were digging for the woman’s six children.

Abdo Tarek (Arabic translation): We arrived at the collapsed building and heard a noise. We tried to reach the sound quickly, but our equipment and capabilities were limited.

The rescuers included Abdo Tarek and Sameh Fakhori, volunteers for the White Helmets, a force of 3,000 civil defense workers formed nine years ago to save victims from Assad’s attacks.

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White Helmets volunteers perform rescue work in Syria.

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Fakhori told us,

Sameh Fakhori (Arabic translation): The girl was the first one we reached by digging through the roof. Two kids were behind her.

Abdo Tarek (Arabic translation): I went down to her and cleared the debris from her hands and feet, and after an hour and a half, we were able to pull her out.

The surviving children were rushed to the cave hospital — including 8-year-old Mohammad and 6-year-old Safaa.

Amany Jaqlan (Arabic translation): After about fifteen minutes…

Jaqlan told us,

Amany Jaqlan (Arabic translation): a girl arrived, followed by another girl. There were three of them.

Three surviving children of six. We found them with their mother, Zainab.

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Zainab Ali al-Najib with her children in Syria

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Scott Pelley: When your surviving children came in, it must have seemed like a miracle to you?

Zainab Ali al-Najib (Arabic translation): Imagine thinking you’ve lost all your kids, that everyone is gone, and then some of them are coming back to you.

She told us that she had to leave one child in surgery so she could attend the funeral of another.

Zainab Ali al-Najib (Arabic translation): I try to talk to them, but nobody answers me. The silence is unbearable. I miss seeing them and hearing their laughter. If only I could meet them for just an hour. I pray that God reunites us as soon as possible. They must miss us as much as we miss them. I hope to see them soon in heaven.

Her tent stands where her apartment fell. In northwest Syria, the quakes left 53 thousand families with nowhere to go, expanding the war’s aging camps of the homeless.

Scott Pelley: What are their needs?

Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh: Whew! What do they not need? I mean look at this. Food safety is one thing.

Mufaddal Hamadeh is a Chicago oncologist and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He told us SAMS spends $28 million a year in syria. About 10 million of that was contributed by US foreign aid.

Scott Pelley: What is your hope for Syria’s future?

Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh: I hope that they can find hope, that they will be able to believe in the future. They feel so much left behind and the world has forgotten about them. I wish they could feel again that there… that there’s someone who really cares.

We found moments of hope even amid the unholy damage in Idlib, a city, remembering 12 years of war, and still in rebel hands. Here, SAMS built a hospital from an office building. and in surgeries weeks before, Samer Attar repaired 12-year-old Suzanne’s arms and legs.

Scott Pelley: What does that moment of progress mean to you?

Dr. Samer Attar: It means that there are days where you fight bouts of helplessness and hopelessness, and you wonder what exactly you’re accomplishing– and you feel like you’re trying to empty the ocean with a small cup because it never ends, and the suffering never ends and it never seems to be going away. But it’s those, it’s those brief flashes that are enough to keep you going for another month.

There will be many months ahead with no end in sight to the war.

Scott Pelley: Have there been airstrikes since the earthquake?

Sameh Fakhori (Arabic translation): Yes, there have been airstrikes. This area experienced an artillery bombardment four days after the earthquake.

Scott Pelley: How do you explain the cruelty of conducting airstrikes against people who have just survived this terrible catastrophe?

The question, they thought, had an obvious answer. They told us, Assad is a criminal. With no prospect of peace, Dr. Attar worries now about vital follow up surgeries, physical therapy and prosthetic limbs.

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Dr. Samer Attar

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Dr. Samer Attar: They’re gonna struggle. And what future do they have? I keep thinking of that girl on a mechanical ventilator, who’s paralyzed from the chest down. Who — what happened to her? Who — who takes care of her? Normally in, in Syria, a big part of your community is family, but what do you do when your entire family’s been killed, and there’s nobody else around. Who takes care of you?

Scott Pelley: You have volunteered at this hospital during the war, you came rushing back after the earthquake, you have treated battlefield injuries in Ukraine as a volunteer. And I have to ask, why do you do this work?

Dr. Samer Attar: It’s not just about showing up to help out. A lot of these missions for me are about bearing witness. They’re about connection, and solidarity, and advocacy. Just being able to be here, be there, and look at these nurses, look at these doctors in the eye, and shake their hands, and be present with them, be on the ground with them. It just lets them know that it’s a small world, they’re not alone, we’re all connected and when the world is literally crashing down around you and collapsing, all we’ve got is each other. And that’s part of the reason why I keep coming back.

‘Each other’ and courage have been enough to steal moments of triumph.

But northwest Syria will be forced to ration mercy. Eleven thousand wounded from the quakes are on a long journey—victims of a vicious and forgotten war—sustained only by the compassion of humanitarian hearts.

To learn more about the Syrian American Medical Society, click here. To learn more about the White Helmets, click here.

Produced by Nicole Young. Field producer, Selin Ozdemir. Field producer, Mouaz Moustafa. Associate producer, Kristin Steve Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Broadcast associate, Matthew Riley. Edited by Sean Kelly.

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