Phil Kadner: Maybe we can send coffins to Syria

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This is Castello Road, the main route for humanitarian assistance into the war-torn city of Aleppo in Syria. Columnist Phil Kadner writes of Chicago-area doctors who traveled the dangerous road all summer to reach victims of the war.
/ Karam Al-Masri / Getty Images

Editor’s note: Beginning today, veteran Chicago columnist Phil Kadner returns to the Sun-Times, where he will write twice weekly. Among his many honors, Kadner is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Award from the Community Media Workshop, the lifetime achievement award and ethics award from the Chicago Headline Club, and the James Craven Freedom of Information Award from the Illinois Press Association.

In a battered car, Dr. Zaher Sahloul and two other doctors from the Chicago area made their way this summer across three miles of the most dangerous road in the world to bring medical care to Syrian refugees.

“Vehicles were overturned on each side of the road, called Castello Road,” Sahloul recalled. “There were twisted metal wrecks up and down and on either side. The road is under constant bombardment. You could smell the stench of decaying flesh because no one was willing to come onto this road to retrieve the dead bodies. It was just too dangerous.”


But it is the only road into eastern Aleppo, a city reduced to rubble during the Syrian civil war. The driver of Sahloul’s vehicle urged the three doctors to say their prayers because “we might not make it.”

Then he punched the gas pedal to the floor and raced through the obstacle course ahead, steering around bomb craters at breakneck speed.

The goal was an underground hospital built with funds from the Syrian American Medical Society, SAMS, of which Sahloul is a founding member.

A pulmonologist/critical care practitioner with offices in Oak Lawn, Sahloul has made the trip into his native Syria 14 times over the past five years to treat the wounded.

He has testified before United Nations officials, congressional panels and international agencies throughout the world about the plight of Syrian refugees. He has been interviewed by television broadcasters and newspaper reporters.

“It is a genocide,” the doctor told me. “And no one seems willing to stop it.”

He can reel off dozens of first-person stories, any one of which would make a powerful Hollywood movie.

There was a man, working in his shop, who heard a bomb explode nearby and realized his wife was in the vicinity. He hesitated before running outside because he knew about the infamous “double tap.”

“That’s when they wait a few minutes before dropping a second bomb so rescuers, neighbors and relatives, surround the site when the second bomb explodes,” Sahloul explained. “That way the casualties increase.”

This, turned into a triple tap, and as the man left his store the last bomb was dropped from the air.

When he regained consciousness, two of his young children were pulled dead from the rubble. His young wife, pregnant, would lose her unborn child, although her life was saved.

Sahloul also tells me about the 5-year-old boy he treated, the victim of another barrel bombing. A barrel is exactly that, a barrel full of shrapnel and explosives dropped by helicopters or airplanes on civilians.

The boy had a piece of shrapnel stuck in his lung. Sahloul stopped the internal blooding, had him stabilized, but still the boy would die.

“He  died because we could not get him to a Turkish hospital,” Sahloul said. “We could have saved his life. But we couldn’t get him out of there.”

Many thousands have died like this, with their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers watching, helpless. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in refugee camps, those who have tried to escape the bombs of their own government, the death squads of ISIS and the guerrilla bands fighting them both.

Sahloul, an American hero, will tell you that Americans have nothing to fear from the refugees. He asks, he begs, that the U.S. do more to stop the slaughter in a land where ISIS did not exist before America’s invasion of Iraq and where President Obama once encouraged open rebellion against the government.

Once, the world turned its back on the Jews of Nazi Germany, placed on a ship of death by Adolf Hitler, who knew no one would take them in.

People claimed the world changed forever after that. I’m not so sure. Fear, ignorance and the politics of hate have the ability to turn hearts to stone and turn the human backbone to jelly.

There are consequences to every political decision this nation makes. We often find humor in our elections and our candidates. But thousands of miles away, our actions, our votes, cause people to die.


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