Damascus: Beauty and Beast

Within the last ten years, I have been to both Syria and Libya. Occasionally, I still look at the entry stamps in my passport and wonder how I have managed to travel so extensively without being stopped and questioned.

The Libya trip was sponsored by a direct invitation from Saif Gaddafi the son of the former Libyan leader. These were relatively quiet days, before the war and decline of the country. I was being asked to consider ways we could improve the education system. Of course, we never did the work and my argument with the hierarchy of PwC over this was the start of the end of my working days there.

Libya, or at least Tripoli, was a clean and an almost antiseptic city. It was quiet, the people thoughtful and I remember being offered an alcohol-free beer when I returned to the hotel. It is funny what sticks in the memory.

My invitation to Damascus was again for business but came through an opportunity identified by the New Zealand consulate in Dubai. This was an opportunity to study and recommend changes to the way the Government was managed and targets set.

I loved Damascus and the Syrians I met.

First Damascus. The hotel found for us was in the old city, just down the road from the Umayyad Mosque.

The Great Mosque of Damascus as it is also known is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and thought by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest place in Islam. But it is also a Christian shrine as legend has it that the building contains the head of John the Baptist. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return. Pope John Paul II visited in 2001.

The roads around the Mosque and the hotel are small, hardly wide enough for our taxi and always bustling with people. The driver didn’t spot the entrance, an unpresuming, single house door among many other similar doors. We drove past it and tried to reverse back through the crowd but gave up and walked. To be honest my heart dropped as I looked at the door and envisaged myself staying in something like a Blackpool guest house.

How wrong I was.

Pushing through the door I was sharing the same feelings as every new adventurer first walking into Doctor Who’s Tardis. That simple door hid something quite different and was the entrance into a huge, only partly covered, courtyard. As one of us said it is like Sheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. It was opulent. A whole different world lived behind that simple door. The inside was enormous

The people we were visiting, our hosts, were as hospitable as any I have ever met. Apart from giving us their time which they did without hesitation they proudly showed us around their beautiful city. When we left they showered us with gifts.

One day I particularly remember was a lunch. As with most Middle Eastern food the meal sumptuous. You could taste the freshness and love put into its preparation. If anything could be better, it was the setting. We were eating outside, under a flimsy awning. Some children, tired of sitting still were running, laughing and playing around the tables. To the side, hidden from the sun a baby was asleep in a pram. It was mid-afternoon, and we were high on a hill, looking out over the city spread below us as light glinted off the gold on a distant minaret.

There is a point to this reminiscence.

I don’t know but it is more than likely that from that restaurant vantage point I was looking at Eastern Ghouta today the centre of a humanitarian disaster. I can tell you what it was like eight years ago but only others can describe the horrors of today.

That baby in a pram will now be eight or nine. The children running around in their teens. Maybe, they are no longer running, maybe they have lost a leg in a bomb blast, or maybe they have been killed in the war.

This is a harrowing, eyewitness report on the BBC website from a doctor in Eastern Ghouta.

Dr Hamid, 50, leaves the makeshift shelter three times a week for a nearby hospital, where he is a trauma doctor. Each time he kisses his wife and five children goodbye, he tries not to think that it might be the last time. He cycles to the hospital through deserted, rubble-strewn streets, mindful of the danger of being outside even for a few minutes. If the bombing is heavy, and there are many injured, he might work for more than 24 hours without a break. When he is treating wounded children, he thinks of his own children, and in the short pauses between patients he prays for their lives. There is no respite.

On Thursday, Syria entered the eighth year of its civil war. More than 400,000 people are believed to have been killed or are missing. Three of Dr Hamid’s own children and many of the children brought to his hospital have never known peace. The injured children arrive with penetrating shrapnel wounds, missing limbs, severe burns, or sometimes with no visible injuries at all, and yet lifeless, with a lingering smell of gas on their bodies.

“Most of the children who die have been shelled in the head or have injuries in their abdomen or bowels. And I have seen some cases of penetrating wounds directly in the heart,” said Dr Hamid.

“These children need specialist surgeons and seven or 14 days in intensive care,” he said. “Many could be saved. In London, they could be saved. In Ghouta we cannot do anything. We try to stop the bleeding and make it OK for them, then we allow them to die.”

This week, a five-year-old boy arrived at Dr Hamid’s hospital with multiple trauma wounds and fractures in both his legs and arms. Dr Hamid sutured the boy’s wounds and amputated one of his arms and one of his legs at the upper thigh. “That is his future,” Dr Hamid said. But the boy is alive, that is a success.

The same week, five young children who were brought to Dr Hamid died. “When we are dealing with children, we hope God will look to them,” he said, letting out a long, deep sigh. “I’m sorry, words cannot express this.”

Atef, 36, a radiologist lives in a basement under a public building, with his wife, children, and 100 other people. Mohammed, a 23-year-old medical student who was forced to abandon his studies to become a full-time war medic, lives with his family in a neighbour’s basement, where 30 people are crammed into three small rooms and there is no electricity or water. “The patients are also our family,” he said. “We will carry on treating them until all the medication is gone. Until we stand with nothing. Until the last minutes.”Dr Hamid estimated that the hospital could have as little as a few weeks’ worth of anaesthetic left, raising the fearful prospect of amputations with no pain relief. “We are working with stitches that were used before, disposable gloves that we wore before, chest drainage that was used on other patients,” he said. “Most wounds get infected and need bandages, but we are using bandages that we used before.”

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death, he said. It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.

“They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me, it was a paradise on the Earth.”

Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy. It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Yesterday, I asked you to send money to Sport Relief. If ever there was a good reason this is it.


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