Oscar-nominated ‘The Cave’: Women-led hospital staff go underground to save patients from war

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Al Ghouta, Syria - Dr. Amani (R) treats an injured baby amongst other medical staff and victims. Courtesy of National Geographic.

At one hospital in a rebel-held area outside Damascus, Syria, a pediatrician named Dr. Amani Ballour and her staff built underground tunnels and bunkers to protect patients from the war. Dr. Amani was the first woman to run a hospital in Syria. 

Feras Fayyed (“Last Men in Aleppo”) followed Dr. Amani and her team in the new Oscar-nominated film “The Cave.” 

Fayyed told Press Play that Dr. Amani, who turned 30 in the film, represented the voice of a young generation as she fought for humanity, equality, justice, freedom and democracy. 

“The story of the hospital where Amani [is] being elected two times to be a manager for her hospital, it’s a story about democracy. You can see a great example for how can a woman survive with an intense situation [that] no human can handle,” he said. 


Dr. Salim (L) holds a light for Dr. Amani (R) to blow out during her birthday celebration in the hospital. Courtesy of National Geographic.

For Fayyed, the hospital represented a microcosm of what Syrian society could be. “It’s like Syria under [an] emergency situation. But inside this emergency situation, we can look to the future. … We want a future that [has a] woman next to the man -- equal. … There’s no future for Syria, for opening the country … without seeing a woman in a strong role in every single place,” he says. 

How did Dr. Amani mentally handle the trauma she saw regularly? Fayyed explained, “She was saying, ‘I can’t look through the eyes of the children when I treat them because this is the only way it makes me survive. Because if I look through them, I will understand this is a child who will die in front of me. It could affect me to not continue what I have to do.’ She knows she has to go through many deaths of the children -- there is no hope to save their lives. But she has to do all of these things.”


Dr. Amani covers her ears during nearby bombings. Courtesy of National Geographic.

Nurse Samaher (center) in the operation room. Courtesy of National Geographic.

At the end of the film, everyone in the hospital evacuated.

Today Dr. Amani is in Paris, running organizations that support women who aspire to work in medicine. The European Union has also given her a prestigious humanitarian award. 


Dr. Amani amongst rubble. Courtesy of National Geographic.

More: 
KCRW’s The Business: In 'The Cave,' Feras Fayyad profiles a brave Syrian doctor working underground
National Geographic: This Syrian doctor saved thousands in an underground hospital