People & Power

Bomb run Aleppo

Behind the scenes with medics who struggle to cope with the deadly effects of barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian regime.

Medics carry a Syrian child injured by government shelling on rebels in Aleppo [Photo: EPA/Carlos Palma]

Editor’s note: Some of the images used in this film may disturb sensitive viewers.

Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, is split between government and opposition forces. Since 2013, rebel-held districts have been under siege, battered and bombarded from the ground and the air.

Many if not most aerial attacks come in the form of barrel bombs; crude canisters – often just oil barrels or garbage cans – packed full of high explosives, that President Bashar al-Assad’s men roll out of helicopters and transport planes onto the city below.

The impact on Aleppo’s densely packed civilian neighbourhoods has been devastating. Homes, business and schools have been obliterated and many thousands of people wounded or killed.

International human rights groups have categorised the use of these weapons as indiscriminate and unlawful, yet the attacks show no signs of slackening. Indeed, recently they seem to be intensifying, with growing numbers of government troops stepping up their efforts to capture this iconic location.

Few know better what the barrel bomb attacks mean in terms of shattered lives, pain and despair, than the makeshift medical teams struggling against impossible odds and great danger to bring help to the victims.

As likely to fall victim to an unannounced attack from the air as any other civilian – and working out of Aleppo’s bombed-out hospitals and clinics with the bare minimum of equipment and vehicles – the medics nevertheless perform daily miracles in rescuing and treating the wounded, be they opposition or government supporters.

Earlier this summer journalist and filmmaker Nagieb Khaja spent time with one group of medics as they struggled to do their jobs. He brought back a remarkable report.

Visceral and sometimes raw, it nevertheless paints a harrowing portrait of city and its people struggling to survive.

This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2014.


By Nagieb Khaja

“Look! You can see the smoke in the sky,” Dr Osama says.

It’s not his real name. ‘Dr Osama’ is keeping his identity secret out of fear for his family members still living in the government-held part of Syria. He had just finished medical school when the fighting broke out. Now he is the head surgeon of an emergency room in the heart of rebel-held Aleppo, struggling to save lives everyday. We met at the Syrian-Turkish border and now he is driving me to witness his work first-hand.

The government bombs a place and then it waits for people to come and start rescuing survivors. Then they return and bomb again. It's very dangerous.

by Abu Rahmo, rescue worker

When first entering the city, it looks like a ghost town with abandoned and shattered buildings everywhere. The level of destruction is difficult to explain if you haven’t experienced it with your own eyes.

The closer we get to the frontline dividing rebel-held and government-held areas, the more people I can see. Being close to the frontline is one of the ways to avoid being bombed by the government’s helicopters – probably because they are afraid of hitting their own positions.

Most of the casualties Dr Osama sees are civilians wounded by “barrel bombs” – or flying IEDs. Made out of oil drums or garbage cans, they are filled with explosives and scrap metal shrapnel, and simply rolled out of the back of helicopters. They are extremely cheap and inaccurate. Human Rights Watch and the UN have criticised the Syrian government’s use of these weapons because they are so indiscriminate.

At the hospital where they treat victims, Dr Osama takes me out front and shows me an old generator.

“This is what human lives are dependent on,” he says. “It goes out once in a while and when it happens, we can only pray.”

Not long after my arrival I hear a child crying. When I turn around I discover a teenage boy, not more than 17, carrying a 10-year-old boy. An ambulance driver asks the teenager what happened. “It was a barrel bomb,” he says, his voice cracking. The younger boy cries while his teenage brother hands him to medical staff. The older brother is also in shock and wipes tears from his eyes.

A rescue worker, Abu Rahmo, asks if I want to go with him to look for survivors at the place that was bombed. We run to his ambulance and he hits the gas. “The government bombs a place and then it waits for people to come and start rescuing survivors. Then they return and bomb again,” Abu Rahmo says. “It’s very dangerous. Be aware that we might be bombed.”

After 10 minutes we are at the site of the bombing. A big building has been turned into a hole in the ground. Other rescue workers from Aleppo’s famous Civil Defence Force have arrived before Abu Rahmo.

“Nobody has been hurt, thank God,” one of the rescue workers tells Abu Rahmo. He starts walking back down towards his ambulance when somebody shouts: “Helicopters! Helicopters!”

Everybody starts running. Abu Rahmo runs for cover in between two buildings. They can give cover if shrapnel starts to fly around, but it is definitely not effective protection from a direct hit. We wait five minutes and nothing happens. One of the men walks out of the alley and stares at the sky. “It´s gone,” he says.

We drive back to the hospital and discover staff struggling to save a victim of a barrel bomb from another part of the town. It is a middle-aged man. Both his femoral arteries have been severed by the shrapnel from a barrel bomb, and he has lost a lot of blood. One of the nurses is giving him CPR. They move to use a defibrillator to shock his heart back into life but suddenly the lights go out. The old generator has failed. Some of the staff run out and race to get it started again.

But the man dies in front of them. One of the nurses goes out to the waiting room and informs the his family – two women and a young boy who is about 11 years old. As they receive the news they start crying and run towards the room to try to see their loved one.

“Baba! Baba!” the boy shouts. He is obviously the dead man’s son. One of the surgeons stops the boy, trying to spare him from seeing his father in this state. The child starts to cough. He is in a state of shock and struggling to breathe. He sounds like he is throwing up, but nothing comes out of his mouth.

An old lady runs towards the surgery room. She stops when sees the man – her son. She starts to wail uncontrollably. The sound is heartbreaking – like all the sorrow and grief of the city of Aleppo is trapped in her body.