Away from my comfort zone working as an emergency medicine doctor in London, I have been working in a hospital in northern Syria with the charity Hand in Hand for Syria, and being followed by a BBC Panorama team. Recently on a rare quiet afternoon I was sitting on the hospital balcony overlooking the olive groves and drinking sugary tea with my Syrian colleagues. I admired them for staying when so many others had left—medics are high value targets here.
The sudden screech of a truck in the hospital courtyard signaled the arrival of a patient.
I ran down the stairs to resus—it had one monitor and oxygen supply for just two patients at one time. The patient was an eight month old baby. His face looked scalded and his left leg was red. The exact cause was unclear, the initial translations mentioned a car crash.
As I worked, a young boy appeared to my side. He looked ghostly and was covered in a white ash and was moving slowly and quietly. On the right side of his head was a large laceration so deep his skull was exposed. “Where shall I go, ukhti [sister]?” he asked. Within moments it became clear that we were in the midst of a mass casualty situation and the hospital was overflowing.
A boy sat on the chairs with his hands outstretched, shivering, and quiet. He was naked apart from underpants. His skin was literally hanging off him.
A scream pierced above the noise. It came from a girl lying in absolute agony. Even a light touch was beyond what she could bear. She had suffered burns all over her body, including her face. The pain was unimaginable.
A nearby private school, the Iqraa Institute, had been hit by a thermal bomb. Staff mobilised into action, but chaos ruled. Their faces were hidden under white masks, as they initially believed that the bomb had been chemical. Panic filled the air. The injured walked like zombies, holding burnt limbs away from their own bodies.
In among the horror I spotted the BBC Panorama team capturing images later brought to the attention of the outside world.
“This is not the first or the worst scenario and probably it won’t be the last—but maybe this time someone will listen because the camera is here,” one doctor told me.
One of my patients was so badly burned his hair had melted, his body was still emanating heat. “I want to sleep,” he kept saying. His father stood by, patient and quiet—he was also in shock. The boy was tall, just like his father, and the only boy in his family with three younger sisters.
One girl spoke to me in English. I was humbled by her efforts despite her terrible pain. Her mother cried by her side. “Do you think they can fix her face?”
She continued in Arabic, speaking to Rola Hallam, my fellow British colleague, who is of Syrian origin. “I was just at school studying because I want to be like you—a doctor to help people.”
They had been in class in a quiet residential street lined with white marbled houses. The first bomb had hit a nearby building penetrating three floors and injuring my first patient, the baby. Everyone ran out to help, described one of the unharmed students. His quick thinking teacher had hauled him to safety. The second bomb hit the school courtyard.
One of the teachers put out the flames on another student who was alight in front of him, with his own hands. The burns were too severe—his last words were caught by the teacher—”La ilaha illallah”—”There is no God but Allah”—the Muslim declaration of belief.
Three students were killed instantly—their charred bodies brought to hospital. I was told they were girls—but I would never have known. The headteacher of the school described the flames falling like rain, incinerating everything in its way. Reducing humans to strange mannequin like beings, with hardened skin—impenetrable to intravenous lines for those still alive. Other equipment just wasn’t available.
One boy was unidentifiable, but alive. We sedated him and placed a tube down his throat so he could breath. His position was fixed and he was unable to move his arms, legs, or even face. His entire body was covered in third degree burns. Only his eyes were moving—registering that he was alive and terrified. He died on the way to the Turkish border and was brought back to the hospital—laid to rest unnamed, his family unaware.
I visited the bomb site a couple of days later. The smell, heavy, strong, and sickening was hanging over the school. I had smelt it in the hospital that day—clinging to my patients mingled with the smell of burnt flesh. A student’s workbook lay at the bottom of the crater left by the bomb—charred—the writing still visible. The student who wrote it was dead.
We now know 19 students suffered burns requiring hospital attention and so far a further ten have died.
Such was the intensity of the impact and the heat that none of these students stood a chance. Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, believes the weapon was a ZAB incendiary device. It contains a jellied fuel which “adheres to the skin increasing the level of injury … it’s a nasty weapon.”
A young girl ran out to see us at the school gates. Her hair hung in a rough bob above her shoulders. She told us that her long hair had been cut short because it had caught fire that day. Never mind, we told her, it will grow back. She escaped far worse, but she remains vulnerable to similar attacks. No child is safe in Syria today.
Saleyha Ahsan is a British doctor and a freelance journalist.