By Mick Krever, CNN
A Syrian-American doctor who spoke with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the difficulties of providing medical care in that war-torn country and the outbreak of polio, also described what it was like to attend medical school with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a former classmate.
There’s always a “different side” of dictators, Dr. Zaher Sahloul said on Tuesday.
“When he was in medical school, he was a humble person. He was accessible.”
“I had a couple of meetings with him after he became a president,” Dr. Sahloul said. “He was very humble, and he mentioned one time that he preferred to be a physician.”
Now, Dr. Sahloul said, President Assad often “uses medical terminology” to describe what is happening in Syria’s civil war.
“In one of the interviews,” Dr. Sahloul said, “he mentioned that if you are a surgeon and you have blood on your hands, that doesn't mean that you are criminal.”
In another, Dr. Sahloul said, President Assad claimed that “‘If you have a gangrenous leg in your body and you cut it, that means that you are trying to save the body; you're not a criminal or brutal.’”
Dr. Sahloul, a Syrian-American, has been traveling to Syria regularly to assess and assist the injured and dying.
The latest battle facing the Syrian people is a scourge most of the world has been rid of: polio.
“What we are seeing right now in Syria is the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Sahloul said.
“And as we all know, polio is not treatable; it's very infectious and it does not abide by boundaries and by borders.”
Indeed, because Syria’s civil war has left the country so fractious – not to mention dangerous – much of the challenge in fighting the disease is the ability of medical personnel to reach affected areas.
On Tuesday, CNN’s Fred Pleitgen reported from the government side of the battle lines, where a mass vaccination program is underway to try to inoculate children.
Dr. Sahloul said that about 50% of Syria is inaccessible to aid workers.
The medical problems in Syria, of course, are far from limited to polio.
“It is really [a] shame on the world that we have children dying in malnutrition near Damascus,” he said.
Medical personnel themselves, he told Amanpour, have been the targets of attack.
“This is something that we've been witnessing from day one in this crisis,” he said.
He said that some of the hospitals that he visited in Aleppo and Latakia were bombed the week after he left.
“We have doctors being killed; we have nurses being killed; we have hospitals being destroyed. And this is a travesty.”
UPDATED: A previous version of this post quoted Dr. Sahloul saying there had been 46 cases of polio in Syria. In fact, there are 17 confirmed cases of polio in Syria, according to the World Health Organization.