‘It was absolute mayhem’: Redbridge doctor recalls horror of Syrian school bombing
PUBLISHED: 07:00 19 October 2013
After three weeks in Syria – which included a school bombing and scores of casualties – don’t ever say to Dr Saleyha Ahsan that King George is a busy hospital.
Hand in Hand charity
• The charity has been at the forefront of international humanitarian assistance since the outbreak of violence in the Middle East country in March 2011.
• In January 2013, it opened its first women and children’s hospital in the town of Atmeh.
• As the only specialist unit of its kind in northern Syria, it saw 2000 children in the first month alone.
• Since March 2011 Hand in Hand for Syria has distributed food boxes to 20,000 families in the country.
She works as a locum registrar at both King George Hospital, Goodmayes, and Queen’s, Romford, as well as a freelance journalist – and she has a special interest in access to healthcare in conflict and war zones.
Dr Ahsan was in Syria from August 20 to September 8. A number of children were killed in the incendiary bombing of a school and she says some of the things she saw were horrific.
“Most of the patients coming in were aged between 14 and 18. Most of them had either life-threatening or life-changing injuries.
“You can’t imagine the pain they were going through. And so many things we take for granted are not
accessible out there.
“I’ve seen a couple of serious burns victims in my time at Queen’s, and we’re lucky to have Broomfields Hospital as a specialist burns unit. These kids had to go on a six-hour drive to Turkey. I know at least one of them died en route.”
Syria is in the midst of a destructive civil war between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and government rebels.
BBC news programme Panorama approached Dr Ahsan and another medic, Dr Rola Hallam, to take part in the documentary to raise awareness about the humanitarian aid crisis in Syria.
The 42-year-old said it was a profound experience. The subject matter interested her due to her military background (she was in the Army in the 1990s and served in Bosnia) and as a doctor. She has visited a number of war zones, including Libya and the Gaza Strip in Palestine.
“It’s a world apart to what I’m used to in the UK and it makes me think we’re lucky to have the NHS,” Dr Ahsan said.
“The day of the bombing was actually quite quiet. Then an eight-month-old baby came in with nasty scolds on his legs. My Arabic is limited so I wasn’t able to communicate with the parents about what happened.
“Then within two or three minutes everything went crazy, it was absolute mayhem. Children were coming in left, right and centre and there was a lot of panic. About 40 people were injured and 10 were killed.
“There was no major incident plan at the hospital despite it
being in the middle of a warzone and there was complete panic.”
Dr Ahsan, who lives in Romford, was supported by the charity Hand in Hand for Syria in her expedition.
She said she would not name the hospital she was stationed at because it is often targeted by the Assad regime.
She praised the training she has received at Queen’s, which prepared her for what she experienced in Syria as best it could. But she admitted by the end of the three weeks, she was happy to return to the Rom Valley Way hospital.
She said: “It’s a busy hospital, and keeps me on my toes. It taught me the importance of staying cool and calm under pressure and working as part of a team. I tried not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, which was tremendously difficult.
“The experience was very draining, but I would definitely go back. The reaction to the film has been very positive and it helps that the whole world can see what we’ve experienced. Access to healthcare in Syria has been largely forgotten by the international community and it breaks my heart.”
Saving Syria’s Children is available to view on bbc.co.uk/iplayer.
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