It was a relatively quiet afternoon on 26 August 2013 in Atareb Hospital in Northern Syria. I was sipping sweet Arabic tea on the hospital balcony. And then suddenly in a moment I was thrust into possibly one of the most shocking scenes I have ever witnessed. Far worse than anything I have experienced as a former British Army officer, as an emergency medicine doctor or as a filmmaker working in conflict zones. The sound of an ambulance siren and then the screams first of all from a baby and then young girls - that I still hear as I write this - alerted me that something disastrous had happened. In fact the true horror was worse than what I had first imagined. A thermal bomb had been dropped on a school filled with children. I am not ashamed to say that those memories still invoke tears. But tears won’t help them. Action will.
As the medical team we had nothing but the simplest of painkillers that day for such extreme injuries. Whilst I treated many of the 40 severely burned people, the majority of them under the age of 16, I made two vows. First to tell the world about this incident and that what is left of the healthcare system after the tactical destruction of hospitals, is ill equipped to deal with such devastating injuries. Second, that even though many of the children involved have subsequently died, their painful deaths would not be in vain.
As a collective, we from the international community, across sectors of humanitarianism, medicine, media, the arts, commerce and politics, can work together to ensure better care for any child who has suffered burns as a consequence of war. With better medical attention these children have a better chance of survival.
No child should suffer the pain I saw that day. If you were there with me, you would say the same. One of the patients - a young 16 year old girl called Seham said as she lay in her hospital bed ‘This has got to stop, we have had enough’. She died a few weeks later. We might not be able to stop the war or stop the bombs from falling but we can do better for the innocent children caught in the crossfire.
Please support The Phoenix Foundation - an idea forged in a small hospital in Syria whilst caring for children who suffered horrific burns when a thermal bomb was dropped on their school in a war zone.