Airstrikes by forces loyal to the Syrian government have bombed out of service the two largest hospitals in besieged eastern Aleppo, which serve a quarter of a million civilians, in what doctors have described as a catastrophic campaign that is testing the conscience of the world.
“You cannot imagine what we see every day: children who are coming to us as body parts. We collect the body parts and wrap them in shrouds and bury them,” said Bara’a, a nurse at one of the affected hospitals, who was present during the bombings.
“Tell the world to wake up, to wake their consciences. Where are you? When Palestine was being destroyed everyone got involved. Why are Syria’s children being forgotten? Nobody is doing anything to reduce this suffering.”
The M2 and M10 hospitals, codenames used by local doctors to obscure the locations of the facilities, were hit around 4am, and the former again around 10am, by airstrikes and artillery shells. This is the latest development in a week-long offensive that one health official has described as “catastrophic and unprecedented in modern history”.
The latest assault on Syria’s doctors is only the most recent outrage in a campaign NGOs describe as systematic and deliberate. It comes on the heels of a violent week in Aleppo, during which nearly 400 people have been killed and hundreds more injured, as forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad’s regime prepare a ground offensive to reclaim the opposition-held east of the city.
“It is extermination of a major city by starving and killing its 85,000 children using all modern and middle age weaponries,” said Zaher Sahloul, a senior adviser for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports both of the hospitals bombed overnight.
In a statement, Unicef said at least 96 children have been killed and 223 injured in eastern Aleppo since Friday, after a ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow broke down in mutual recrimination.
“The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare,” said the Unicef deputy chief, Justin Forsyth. “There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing.”
Health workers said the 4am attacks at the M2 killed two staff members, and a civilian whose heart was pierced by shrapnel from the bombing. The hospital’s intensive-care unit was extensively damaged, as were power generators, fuel storage and water tanks that kept the hospital running, and an ambulance that had replaced another destroyed in a bombing two days ago.
Medics took shelter in the hospital basement during the mid-morning attack, sending calls for aid as they hid until government planes had retreated.
“If the hospital falls on top of us, come pull us out from under the rubble but do not take pictures,” said Bara’a, the M2 nurse, in a message from the shelter to a discussion group of journalists and doctors in eastern Aleppo. “Please don’t take pictures, we won’t gain anything from it and our dignity is too precious.”
There are only 30 doctors remaining in eastern Aleppo, and physicians there have condemned what they describe as a systematic campaign of destruction against doctors and medical facilities, and say they have been abandoned by the international community.
“People here now consider themselves dead and are just counting the days,” said Anwar Shehade, an anesthesiologist. “I am lucky if I survive until the night, but I am sure that I will die, if not today then tomorrow for sure.”
Doctors say medicine is running out and hospitals are already overwhelmed by the number of wounded, which the local civil defence rescue groups estimated at 1,700 people. At the M2 hospital, a fresh wave of victims in the late afternoon had to be sent to another hospital farther away because they could only provide them with basic first aid.
“These bombings are systematic and direct against hospitals that are serving besieged Aleppo,” said Mohammad Abu Rajab, a doctor at the M2. “Today we are saddened. Grief has filled the faces of all the doctors because we can no longer treat these patients. We pray to God that we are able to work again.”
Joanne Liu, the head of Médecins Sans Frontières, which supports both hospitals, described the joint Russian and Syrian aerial campaign against Aleppo as a sign of the new limitless nature of warfare.
“The conduct of war today is ever boundless. It is a race to the bottom,” she said at a United Nations security council session. “The unremitting assault on Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces over recent days is certainly testament to that.”
In a week of what residents have described as the worst airstrike campaign since the start of the civil war in Syria, forces loyal to Assad have begun the early stages of a ground offensive aimed at reclaiming eastern Aleppo, which has been under opposition control since 2012.
A brief ceasefire negotiated by Washington and Moscow collapsed last week. Since then, more advanced weaponry, such as bunker-buster bombs, have been dropped on the east of the city, which has been under siege for three months.
A victory in Aleppo would allow Assad to lay claim to most of Syria’s heavily populated urban centres, while relegating the rebellion to a rural insurgency.
Local people say the conduct of the campaign now has gone beyond anything they have seen since the start of the war.
“I just want the world to know that in here are people calling for help, there are children, human souls,” said Bara’a. “There are children dying of no fault of their own.”