EVANSTON, ILLINOIS – Aleppo, Syria, truly is a horrible place to be. Once a vibrant, cosmopolitan city, it has become an apocalyptic landscape scarred by destruction. Snipers shoot people waiting in bread lines, and airstrikes crush families in their sleep.
There are still good people in Aleppo — innocent, noncombatant civilians. Some are too poor or sick to flee; some refuse on principle to leave their homes.
They face a difficult choice: Risk death, disease, starvation and perennial homelessness as refugees in a camp with open sewers, living in tents and enduring dehydration in the summer and freezing in the winter. Or risk bullets, shrapnel and incineration at home. Many prefer to chance dying at home.
Getting sick or injured in Aleppo is a problem. Hospitals have been targeted and destroyed. Doctors face torture, imprisonment and death if caught treating “the other side.” Few have stayed to treat those left behind.
I recently spent two weeks in an underground field hospital working alongside a remarkable group of Syrian doctors and nurses.
A typical day was horrifying and exhausting. We lived in our scrubs and slept on the floor. We all took turns doing CPR, laying blankets over the dead, debriding wounds, stabilizing fractures and doing amputations. We did lots of amputations — many on children. It felt like we did amputations every day.
After an airstrike, people would crowd around the door, and there would be no place to put the overflow except on the floor. Blood tracked in from the street. Blood was all over the floor, all over us.
Occasionally the hospital would shake from nearby blasts. The glass in some windows had shattered long before I arrived. The sounds of airstrikes, artillery and gunfire rarely stopped. When they did, screaming always followed.
Some nights the screaming never stopped. One night a child asked when his missing legs were going to stop hurting, screamed for his mother, father, brothers and sisters — not knowing they had all been killed.
I met a father and son who were both missing their legs because they were sleeping in the same room when a missile slammed into their home.
I met bloodied parents carrying lifeless children with gunshot wounds to their heads or chest — victims of snipers who plague the roofs of the city, targeting and terrorizing the weak and vulnerable.
And that was in just the first few days. It is no way to live. I was there only two weeks. For the hospital staff, it has been this way every day for a year. They live in the hospital and rarely leave. They had no issue with me as an American. But some told me that they feel forsaken and forgotten, that no one hears their voices.
In times of chaos and war, extremists tend to drown out the voices of moderation. But good, moderate, responsible people on the ground should not be forgotten. These doctors and nurses are risking their lives to save lives, and they embody an unyielding sense of hope and perseverance. They are heroes, making life better if only for a few people despite the horrors around them. They need all the help they can get, and they will take whatever is given.
Realistically, without a decisive, executable resolution, the slaughter will continue. Thousands more innocent people will suffer and die miserably.
The situation in Syria is not just about chemical weapons. It is about the systematic killing of innocents by a tyrannical regime violently lashing out to stay in power.
The United States has issues that require attention at home — crime, health care, education, unemployment, homelessness. More than 2 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of whom were wounded and need care and support.
But the slaughter in Syria needs to stop. The targeting of hospitals and medics needs to stop. American ideals and principles of freedom, justice and equality for all are exceptional — no matter what the president of Russia thinks.
These principles may not have always been put into best practices by our elected officials — a sentiment that, if I lived in Syria or Russia, I could be imprisoned for expressing. But the American people have been, and should continue to be, a force for good in this world.
No matter one’s stance on military intervention, there are other ways to help — even if only for the health, shelter and education of the people injured and displaced in Syria. Many humanitarian groups can aid with things as simple as clean water, gauze and blankets.
There are ways Americans can make life in Syria better, if only for a few people. One day, in remembrance of kindness and generosity, those few survivors might be able to change their region for the better.
Samer Attar is an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University. He traveled to Aleppo, Syria, last month.