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Seeing parallels, doctors apply lessons from Syria to their work in Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For some working to help victims of the war in Ukraine, there's an ominous similarity with the conflict in Syria. Doctors who have worked in both countries are seeing the same gruesome tactics and injuries brought about by Russian military action. NPR's Tim Mak spoke to humanitarian workers who have sought to reduce suffering in both countries. And here is where I need to let you know that this story includes graphic language regarding war injuries.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: When Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, former U.S. diplomat and Syria specialist John Jaeger felt a sense of deja vu.

JOHN JAEGER: As the Russian invasion of Ukraine sort of unfolded and, you know, every day brought a new and shocking level of violence or horror, those of us who had been very close to the Syrian conflict, I think, really felt like the world was watching a movie that we all kind of watched a number of years ago.

MAK: Jaeger is hardly the only one to notice the similarities. Dr. Mohamed Tennari is a Syrian doctor working with the Syrian American Medical Society. He was in Ukraine this spring trying to help with medical supplies and to share his hard-earned expertise, which, in the early days of the war, Ukrainian doctors lacked.

MOHAMED TENNARI: They don't have experience with war injuries. And we, as the Syrian, have a big experience in these. So we think that we can help in this.

MAK: Russian President Vladimir Putin first intervened in the Syrian civil war back in 2015, entering on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Dr. Samer Attar is an American of Syrian heritage and an orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern University. He has worked in both Syria and Ukraine.

SAMER ATTAR: And war surgery is - you know, it's a skill, but it's not really a skill you wish had to exist because you see horrible injuries. You see the worst of humanity. You see what people do to each other.

MAK: Attar says he saw commonalities in Russian tactics in the two conflicts, including the use of indiscriminate bombardment, leading to widespread civilian injuries and deaths.

ATTAR: The injuries are like amputations, disemboweled bellies, obliterated faces, open wounds with exposed bones and muscles. And those surgeries are never one and done. And so when that started happening in Ukraine, I think there was this sense of solidarity, a sense of duty to - just to go and help out because these are injuries we've seen before.

MAK: The war in Syria led to a severe shortage of food for its citizens. It's estimated that 14.6 million people lack adequate food security, and now the war in Ukraine is exacerbating those already desperate circumstances. Kieren Barnes is the Syria country director for the humanitarian group Mercy Corps.

KIEREN BARNES: I mean, the humanitarian situation, particularly in the northwest, but all across Syria, due to 11 years of conflict, is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. The longer the crisis goes on in Ukraine, the more the needs will increase in countries like Syria, and certainly the food security will be impacted even further.

MAK: It's a sad reminder that the two conflicts in which Russia has played a leading role are intertwined and that both wars have these grim similarities witnessed by a select few who have sought to provide relief and who are trying to draw whatever attention they can to these terrible tragedies.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.