Hazem Hallak e-mailed me after lunch Thursday. "Can you talk?" he wrote from his home in Merion. I winced. I always wince when Hallak reaches out. The news is rarely good.

We first talked in spring 2011, when his brother went missing in Aleppo, Syria, after he'd visited Hazem in Philadelphia.

Hazem is a medical researcher who came here to finish his education. His youngest brother, Sakher, was a physician who ran their country's largest eating-disorders clinic.

A few days after Sakher's disappearance, his body turned up on the roadside. He'd been tortured, disfigured, mutilated.

His apparent crime: He had treated the wounds of antigovernment demonstrators as unrest spread to that northern Syria city.

Hazem didn't think Sakher was political. He doesn't think his other brother - Houssam - is, either. Houssam is a cardiothoracic surgeon, a husband and father of three.

He stayed in Aleppo and seemingly got along with everyone, Hazem says.

"He was part of few doctors practicing in regime-held area with a good relation with the regime," Hazem says.

Houssam was walking home from surgery Tuesday with his colleagues when he detoured to pick up a book for his niece - she had just gotten into medical school. He was hurrying to catch up with his friends when the shell hit.

"He took some shrapnel to the arm and his back," Hazem says.

But Houssam was uninjured enough to perform first aid on those who weren't so fortunate.

That's when the second shell hit, this one landing right next to him.

"He was hit in the head," his brother said. "It hit his left parietal lobe." Hazem went into more detail, clinical detail, telling how the location of injury allowed his brother to continue to function for a few moments before he collapsed.

Only at the third hospital were there both doctors and the needed medical equipment to treat him, but Hazem holds out little hope.

Houssam Hallak remains in a coma. His brother talks of him in the past tense.

"I'm angry," Hazem Hallak told me. "I'm angry because we tried to get him out of there."

He sent me copies of correspondence with Sen. Bob Casey's office. An aide there had helped get Houssam Hallak an audience at the U.S. Consulate in Lebanon last year in hopes of obtaining a visa to travel to the States.

The doctor was turned down.

Hazem says that's because U.S. officials felt the doctor and his family would likely seek permanent residence here - something Hazem says would not have been the case.

It's likely, Hazem says, that it was Islamicists who shelled Aleppo on Tuesday.

So one brother died at the hands of the regime, the other was destroyed by rebels.

But this, Hazem emphasizes, is not political.

"It's about civil war and the random shelling," he said. "And he is one of the 40 people . . . at the explosion, that he was helping as a doctor. The death of the victims was completely random, regardless of their beliefs."

He called the hospital to find out who the surgeons were who operated on his brother.

"Are they the best?" Hazem asked.

"They are the best," the man at the hospital replied, "because they are the only two we have left."

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