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10/04/2013

Saving Syria's Children: "You can't say you didn't know"

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A Syrian child in a refugee camp near the Turkish border.                                               (Photo: BBC) 

When "Saving Syria's Children" aired on British television, the BBC broadcast a warning at the start of the documentary: "There are scenes which some viewers may find upsetting."

Shots of children, staring solemnly at the camera with huge, dark eyes. Premature babies, thin and tiny, reaching out to doctors who coo over how small their fingers are.

Then, this: "I think there's been some kind of chemical attack. There's dozens of people that have just been rushed in, covered in burns and some kind of white powder dust. All their clothes are hanging off them."

And that is in the first three minutes. It's bloody, even though there is actually very little blood, and upsetting.

It's bloody upsetting.

BBC reporter Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway were in Syria earlier this year with two doctors from a charity called Hand in Hand for Syria. Dr. Rola Hallam usually works in a pediatric ICU in London; her colleague, Dr. Saleyha Ahsan, in ahospital in Essex, just outside London.

In August, the doctors, trailed by the journalists, travelled close to the front lines to see what conditions are like; they met families who have lost children and homes, yet still bake bread and offer it to visitors.

They spoke to an 85-year-old man who is suffering with diabetes and hasn't had his medication. He and his family have been forced to move from place to place for two years. A tear rolls down his cheek as he speaks to Hallam; she leaves him an emergency food parcel, something she calls a drop in the ocean.

"It's not a home. It's not your health. It's not your medication you need. It's not your dignity back," Hallam says. "It's not your broken heart mended."

After their trip, the doctors return to a hospital in the city of Aleppo. Ahsan is looking after a baby with a burned face; it's difficult, and the doctors are concerned that there's little in the way of pediatric supplies.

Then, cars and vans and ambulances begin pulling up. And people, their skin and clothing hanging off them, start staggering in. They're mostly teenagers. Their school, they say, has been attacked. They are very badly burned, and the doctors are worried they're dealing with a chemical attack. 

"It was a surreal, slow-motion event," Pannell recalls. "The hospital was overwhelmed. And you had these kids writhing on the floor."

In the footage, children look like zombies, shaking, swaying on their feet and drooling in what must be shock and pain.

A father screams at the camera, pointing at the blistered face of his child: "This is my daughter! This is my daughter!"

Ten of the children died.

"I found it difficult not to be touched by what (we) saw," says Pannell, an experienced conflict journalist who has reported from Afghanistan and Iraq, among other war zones. "The overriding thing is nobody can say they didn't know what was happening.

"You may choose to do nothing about it - you may choose not to donate ... and politicians may choose not to act," he says. "But you can't say you didn't know."

"Saving Syria's Children" airs Saturday, Oct. 5 at 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye on CBC News Network. 

Jennifer Quinn is a foreign affairs and investigative reporter at the Star. As a journalist with the Associated Press, based in London, she wrote extensively about British politics. Follow her on Twitter @JQStar.

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