January 2013

Dr Rami in the ruins of the hospital's upper floor Times photographer, Tom Pilston

Rami Habib was woken at 7.30am by a Syrian regime helicopter hovering over the apartment block that houses his hospital, and the whistle of a barrel-bomb hurtling downwards. He threw himself to the floor. There was a deafening explosion, followed by a roar as the three floors above his own collapsed. He was covered in glass and debris, but alive. Ten other people were wounded, but miraculously none was killed.

The attack was entirely deliberate. Dr Habib’s makeshift hospital in the Syrian town of Salma had been hit many times, though seldom by a bomb. Usually it was shells fired from “the Tower” — a military base perched on a mountaintop scarcely a mile across the deep valley marking the front line between the rebel-held north and the coastal region of Latakia, the regime’s Alawite stronghold.

“It would never happen in Leicester,” he said with a laugh. Before the revolution Dr Habib, 41, spent seven years training as a paediatrician, living next to the old Leicester City football ground in Filbert Street. He was on holiday in his native Syria when the uprising began 22 months ago, and felt he had to stay. “This is my country, and this was something we’d dreamt of for a long time,” he said.

He owned an apartment in Salma, a summer resort built across a mountainside with beautiful views of the Mediterranean, and opened a clinic there. Last June the Free Syrian Army seized control of the town after a fierce ten-day battle with its security forces. The regime responded by cutting off Salma’s electricity and water and launching a bombardment so fierce that today there is scarcely a window pane in the town not shattered and great tracts of the surrounding forests have been set ablaze by shells.

Seven months on, Salma still suffers daily attacks from helicopters, or from the tanks and artillery that are clearly visible around the Tower. To avoid snipers you have to run or drive at speed across those parts of the town not screened by buildings. Most of Salma’s 20,000 citizens fled to Turkey long ago, leaving behind a defiant few who refused to budge, several hundred FSA fighters and a handful of Sunni refugees from the Alawite towns of the coast who have moved into the abandoned apartments.

“It’s a ghost town,” said Dr Habib — and one that resembles Armageddon. The once-elegant apartments that face the Tower lie in ruins, or are laced with mortar and bullet holes, Dr Habib’s among them. The streets are deserted, cratered and strewn with debris.

Downed power cables and snapped trees lie across the pavements. Bushes and weeds clog the gutters, testament to how quickly the veneer of civilisation can disappear. There is not a shop or a business still open. The only movements are of ragged curtains flapping in gaping windows, the occasional battered FSA pick-up careering down a road, or bearded fighters chopping wood for fuel outside the buildings they have commandeered for bases. Even the fine old mosque overlooking Salma has been destroyed by shells.

But Dr Habib has stayed on to treat wounded fighters and those civilians left in nearby villages. He had to move his hospital from a mosque because it was too exposed, and it now occupies the basement of the barrel-bombed apartment block, but he and a courageous band of volunteers have kept it open throughout. He brings in medicines from Turkey, 20 miles to the north. He powers a couple of generators with diesel smuggled from regime-controlled Syria.

Salma’s shrivelled population has rigged up two miles of hosepipe to bring water from a spring, and repaired an old watermill to grind wheat into flour for bread. Otherwise it exists on pasta and canned food. Some people shoot birds for meat.

Dr Habib reckons he has treated about 700 wounded fighters. Most survived, but about 20 were so badly injured that they died on the operating table. Others were rushed northwards but bled to death while waiting hours for Turkish ambulances to collect them from the border. He has even treated some captured Syrian regime soldiers — an irony not lost on him. “We were being shelled by the regime while we were treating its soldiers,” he noted.

He suspects that at least some of those captives were later killed by the rebels. “I can understand that. They are criminals. They have humiliated the people. They have arrested hundreds from this area. They are not from here and people are full of hate for them.” The barrel-bomb apart, Dr Habib has had other narrow escapes. A close friend was killed by shrapnel on the hospital’s steps just minutes after Dr Habib had been chatting to him there. In Salma, they dread clear days because those are the ones when the helicopters attack.

“We call this Mashrara Shaheed [Project Martyr],” he laughed. “We’re constantly under random fire from shells, rockets and bullets. Anyone can die in a second, but everyone here is prepared to die.”

Dr Habib has left his wife in Leicester. He sleeps in a basement. The snows have arrived, and it is bitterly cold. There is presently a military stand-off, but on particularly bad days he and his assistants have treated 50 fighters in an emergency room awash with blood. “Some nights I reached the point of saying, ‘This will be my last day in the revolution’, but in the morning we say, ‘In the name of God, somebody has to do it’.”

The truth is that he has never in his medical career felt so fulfilled, and though he loved Britain, he will stay to help build a new Syria after the regime falls. “It’s a tough, harsh life here but everyone’s happy they’re doing some good for the country,” he said. “I’m very happy I’m using my life experience to help these people.”