I, a Christian doctor in Aleppo, close to the victims of the war

Nabil Antaki speaks of great signs of hope. Hundreds of volunteers work day and night to ensure survival to others. A lay member of the Blue Marists, he is one of the few doctors left in the city. Faith in Christ his "strength to remain". In Syria, 80% of the population does not have health care. 70% of specialist doctors have emigrated. 

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – The hundreds of volunteers who work day and night to ensure the survival of others just like the majority of people in Aleppo , they are "true champions of resilience". This is what Nabil Antaki, a Christian doctor specialised in gastroenterology, tells us. He is on the front line in the rescue work of hundreds of thousands of Christian doctor who is a specialist in gastroenterology describes the efforts to help hundreds of thousands of victims of the war that has bled Syria for more than six years. He is a lay member of the Order of the Marists Friars and is one of the few doctors who remained in the city, despite the violence of the conflict. "The situation in the healthcare system - he says - has improved in the last year", although the effects of embargo and sanctions remain "heavy", added to which the loss of "70% of specialist doctors and the 60 % of generic doctors ".

Dr. Anatri was born in Aleppo, is married and has two children living in the United States. He graduated at St. Joseph's University in Beirut (Lebanon) and specialised in Canada. He founded the association of "Blue Marists" with his wife, a reality that works in the medical field and treats the poor and needy.

Below the full text of the AsiaNews interview with Dr. Nabil Antaki:

What is the healthcare situation in Syria like today after six years of war?

The healthcare situation in Syria has improved in the last year. However, we continue to suffer the heavy effects of the embargo and sanctions against the country. Fortunately, pharmaceutical companies have resumed working at a certain pace, thanks to the import of basic products from India. In addition, hospitals are again beginning to guarantee a general level of quality that can be considered acceptable because of the purchase of Chinese equipment and medical facilities.

Doctors and hospitals were one of the main targets of the conflict, in Aleppo and throughout the country. Can you talk to us about your "mission" as a doctor in time of war?

From July 2012 to December 2016 Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria and the nation’s economic capital, was the epicentre of the war and together with Raqqa and Dier el-Zor and the place where the worst sufferings occurred. The daily bombings of rebel armies in the western districts of Aleppo caused many victims. 70% of specialist doctors and 60% of general practitioners left the country. Many hospitals suffered serious damage, were destroyed or burnt. Today there are only two public hospitals serving the city. That is why since December 2012, together with medical collegues and surgeons at St. Louis Hospital, a private clinic belonging to the Sisters of St. Joseph, and in collaboration with my "Blue Maristi" association, we started a project called " Civilians wounded by war” to treat all civilians affected by war. This is the best structure in the city, it provides the best treatments and guarantees the greatest opportunities for survival. We treated thousands of injured and saved the lives of many people.

Our mission is to care for and treat the sick - not just the injured – free of charge, because about 80% of the population is very impoverished because of the conflict and no longer has the means to seek treatment or cover the health costs.

Has your faith helped you to face the war and live everyday life, and if so how?

My faith in Christ has given me the strength to stay in Syria and Aleppo, although I had opportunity to leave the country, as many of my medical colleagues did. I could have gone to live in the United States or Canada, where my children are already living. With my wife, together, we decided we had to stay in order to take care of the sick, help the families survive, and our presence here would be a source of hope for all the Christian and Muslim families who remained, but especially for Christian families.

Dr. Antaki, you will have experienced moments of great intensity and emotion. Are there any episodes that are particularly etched into your memory?

Of course, there are many events that have become indelibly imprinted on my memory: the death of my older brother, killed by the rebels in August 2013. The displacement of all Christian families, we are talking about 300 nuclei, from the neighbourhood by Jabal Al Sayde on Good Friday of the same year. And again, the death of a colleague killed by a rocket as he left the hospital and the arrival of a hundred people, all of Christian faith, suddenly to our Blue Marists home fleeing the bombings.

Are there any signs of hope?

In this dramatic situation that we have lived and experienced over the last few years, there have been sources of great hope. Among these I remember the hundreds of volunteers who worked day and night to ensure survival to others. I am also talking about most of the inhabitants of Aleppo, who are true champions of resilience. They are people who have lost everything: homes, cars, shops, activities, factories, work; people who have lost their loved ones - wives, women, children, brothers and sisters - and who have agreed to do any job to survive. People who have lived inside destroyed houses, frozen in the cold winter, having no heat, and despite all of this they always found the strength to say, "Thank you, my God."

Are there any reasons to be optimistice about Aleppo’s future?

Today we are a bit more optimistic than in the past. Everyday life has improved, thanks to the return of water and electricity supplies, although it is still rationed, and for the end of the bombings on Aleppo. At national level, the imminent elimination of Daesh [Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, IS] is a great source of optimism. Some local de-escalation conflict agreements and rebel evacuation plans from some areas leave a glimmer of hope that there will soon be an end to the war.

In your last letter you spoke of an Aleppo "neither in war nor in peace," have there been any changes?

No, nothing has changed substantially in these last few weeks. We are always waiting for serious talks and clear-cut positions of world powers in view of a stable and lasting peace in Syria. (DS)