Syria Crisis

A Syrian Doctor's Bid To Build A Bomb-Proof Hospital For Women And Girls

War has dismantled Syria's healthcare system, preventing women and children from receiving life-saving treatment for preventable illnesses. Exiled doctor Khaled Almilaji is determined to do something about it.

Syrian man helping build the Avicenna Women & Children's Hospital
Syrian man helping build the Avicenna Women & Children's Hospital
Alexandra Bradford

For a few days in October, a tiny, starving baby became the face of the war in Syria. Images of one-month-old Sahhar Dofdaa, from Syria's opposition-held Eastern Ghouta, showed her fragile, less than 2-kilo body, with sunken eyes and bones protruding beneath her thin gray skin. The news of her passing highlighted how the conflict contributes to preventable deaths, especially among women and children, the population's most vulnerable members.

When Syrian doctor Khaled Almilaji saw the photos of Sahar, he thought she wasn't just suffering from malnutrition, as had been originally reported, but probably also had a chronic or congenital disease. The baby girl had been treated by a local doctor, but Almilaji believes if she had been able to access a dedicated hospital for women and children, she might have lived. "Her disease could have been alleviated by good medical care," he says.

That is what Almilaji hopes to provide with Avicenna Women and Children's Hospital, a facility currently being built in rebel-held Idlib province. The hospital will offer the reproductive and maternity care that is sorely lacking in a country where healthcare services have had to pivot to focus on trauma. And it will do all of this across two floors set deep underground, out of the reach of Syrian airstrikes.

They prefer to give birth at home.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, 485 medical facilities have been hit by military airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of 841 healthcare workers, a clear breach of the Geneva Convention, which classifies the targeting of hospitals and healthcare workers as a war crime. At least 64% of these attacks were perpetrated by the Syrian military, with the rest carried out by Russian forces, non-state groups or unidentified attackers.

The constant bombardment and the destruction of fundamental health services leave many people suffering serious complications or dying as a result of illnesses that could otherwise be successfully treated. Even giving birth in Syria can be life-threatening.

"Women don't feel safe to stay in hospitals, which are attacked on a regular basis. They prefer to give birth at home without proper medical attendance, which is increasing complications for both mother and child," says Almilaji. "That's why providing a secure women and children's hospital is essential."

One of the many bombed hospitals in Syria — Photo: Juma Muhammad/ZUMA

Tortured for treated the injured

Avicenna hospital is the latest project by the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organization (SIMRO), an NGO that Almilaji formed five years ago to protect patients and doctors from aerial attacks by moving healthcare facilities underground.

Almilaji, who is doing his postgraduate studies at the University of Toronto and in December was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by Canada's governor general for his humanitarian work in Syria, is no stranger to providing medical care under makeshift conditions.

He was at home in Aleppo in 2011 when government forces fired on peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, igniting a war that to date has resulted in at least 400,000 civilian deaths.

"When the Syrian regime started to attack protesters with gunfire, injured protesters couldn't go to the hospital because the secret police and intelligence officers would be there to arrest them," says Almilaji. The government was preventing injured protesters from receiving medical care as a deterrent, he says, the idea being that if protesters were seen bleeding to death in the street, other people would be less likely to join the demonstrations.

Driven to help, Almilaji joined other physicians who were traveling to the cities of Hama and Homs to treat injured protesters in secret field hospitals. When the Syrian government learned about the secret medical facilities, it responded by arresting the doctors.

On Sept. 7, 2011, Almilaji was treating protesters in Damascus when government intelligence officers arrested him and three of his colleagues for treating injured civilians. For six months, they were held in prison and tortured. Almilaji says he was beaten with bars and cables and electrocuted. "They hung me by my hands from the ceiling for 24 hours with no food, no water," he says.

In early March of 2012, he was released from prison with a warning that if he was caught treating injured protesters again he would be made to "vanish." He fled to Turkey, where he founded SIMRO so that he could continue to provide medical care by building fortified hospitals in Syria's conflict zones.

The organization runs through a network of field officers on the ground in Syria and Turkey, with funding from international donors. Almilaji tries to go back to Syria as often as he can. He last snuck into the country in 2015 to check on a few medical projects and the building of an underground hospital in Hama.

Too big to hide

Avicenna Women and Children's Hospital is being built in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and international donors including Refugee Protection International. An ongoing crowdfunding campaign contributes resources as well.

The Syrian government started building the hospital before the conflict, and by the time opposition forces took control of Idlib, the facility already included two "huge" underground floors, says Almilaji.

The eight above-ground floors have been fortified to provide a protective barrier that should stop bombs dropped by Syrian warplanes from reaching the underground floors where the new hospital is located. But there's no way to protect the hospital from Russian airstrikes, which use high-explosive ammunition, such as bunker-buster bombs that are far more destructive than Syria's barrel bombs.

"Nothing can stop them," says Almilaji.

All over Syria, hospitals have tried to hide from airstrikes by disappearing into caves and devising code-name systems in an effort to disguise their coordinates. But with Avicenna, Almilaji and his team decided to make themselves more visible, not less so, by handing the hospital's coordinates over to the Russian and Syrian authorities.

"They won't be able to say that they didn't know the hospital was there. And our doctors know that if they are attacked, the world will know about it."

"This is a huge hospital and we couldn't hide that there was a lot of work going on here," says Almilaji. So they asked various U.N. agencies to share the coordinates of the hospital with all parties involved in the conflict: the Syrians, the Russians, and the U.S.military. "They have all been told that there is a hospital there that is being supported by the United Nations and that we are doing purely humanitarian work," says Almilaji.

The hope is that by making the coordinates public and by involving the U.N., it will be impossible for Russia or Syria to attack the hospital. "They won't be able to say that they didn't know the hospital was there," Almilaji says. "And our doctors know that if they are attacked, the world will know about it."

As well as providing a safe place to get medical care, Avicenna has partnered with Brown University, in the U.S., and the University of Toronto to provide continuous training for at least 350 doctors, nurses and administrative staff in Syria. Almilaji studied at Brown University before being barred from reentry to the U.S. last year because of President Trump's travel ban on Syrian citizens.

Using a telehealth communications system, supervisors and consultants from Brown University will be able to provide real-time consultations, mentoring and technical support to Avicenna's medical staff. A certification program — to reinstate the residency program for would-be doctors after the original program was halted in conflict areas at the start of the war — is also in the works.

Almilaji hopes that most of the medical personnel at the hospital will be Syrian doctors and specialists who were forced to flee regime-controlled areas. "Avicenna will provide a safe environment that will attract this category of doctors to come back to Idlib from Turkey, where there are hundreds near the borders in Gaziantep, Antakya, Urfa, and Mersin," he says.

By the time Avicenna opens in April 2018, Almilaji estimates that $850,000 will have been spent on fortifying the hospital's structure. The project will rely on continuous donations to keep the hospital running, including paying for medical personnel and buying medical equipment. But Almilaji is determined to make it work.

"We will show that people who struggle for freedom can also establish a unique health system, even in a war zone," he says.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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