Last week, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was again ordered by the UN to halt its brutal crackdown, which included government troops pummelling the central city of Homs on Friday, killing at least 22 people.
However, for the survivors, it appears a similar fate may await. International medical humanitarian organisation Medécins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has spoken out to decry the militarisation of Syria’s hospitals.
MSF, which aims to provide medical aid ‘where it is most needed, regardless of race, religion, politics or gender’, and currently works in 60 countries, says Syrians injured by government troops are unable to go to hospital for fear of being arrested, tortured or even killed for opposing Assad’s rule. Medicine is being used as a “weapon of mass persecution”, in ways almost unprecedented in recent warfare, the organisation claims.
“Doctors feel like they’re being hunted,” says Dr Greg Elder, a Kiwi ex-pat and MSF’s deputy director of operations in Paris. “Regardless of what happens in the wider political landscape, these things shouldn’t happen. Hospitals should be protected – that’s in the Geneva Convention.”
As violence escalates, so do the reports of blast traumas, sniper injuries, high-velocity gunshot wounds and soft tissue injuries and fractures caused by exploding bullets.
MSF is receiving a growing number of testimonies that the wounded are being beaten and killed as they lie in hospital beds, while others are left to die with festering wounds. Some simply disappear. The identities of those making the reports have been withheld over fears of retaliation by government troops.
One demonstrator who sought hospital treatment says: “All the doctors had been arrested and they were forced to sign a document saying they would only treat certain cases, the ones the government would allow.”
Others who have injuries consistent with taking part in a demonstration run a high risk of being arrested, or worse. “I was operated on under false identity because I am wanted by the security forces,” another injured man says. “Normally, under the worst circumstances, they might have removed a finger or just bandaged my hand but they knew I was from [locatoin withheld] and they cut it off from the wrist.”
Another Syrian reports seeing a fellow patient killed by a member of Assad’s security forces as the man lay injured in a hospital bed. “A man in military gear – judging by his uniform, an officer – was crushing an injured person with his feet. In the end, the officer finished him off.”
For medical workers, the situation is dangerous and doctors know they are being watched, although Syrian authorites tell the outside world nothing untoward is happening. One response has been to set up underground clinics in homes, warehouses and apartments.
These makeshift hospitals are run with few supplies and only basic injuries can be treated. For most, the only hope is to be smuggled over the border to Lebanon or Jordan.
Although MSF has not been allowed direct access to the wounded in Syria, it is offering support to the proliferation of underground, mobile clinics springing up across the country. It’s a constant battle, however.
“The field hospitals change place every day. Several times [Assad’s troops] have come to take away or burn all the medical materials and supplies,” another Syrian recounts.
“There are no ambulances, they have all been targeted. They shoot at the passengers. The doctors who are brave enough to take action are arrested, or their wives are raped, or they are place under house arrest.”
In the clandestine medical shelters, simple rooms outfitted as operating theatres are used for surgical procedures. Hygiene and sterilisation conditions are rudimentary and aneasthesia is in short supply. Furthermore, the mere possession of drugs and basic medical materials, such as gauze, is considered a crime.
With most ambulances now under military control, another unofficial service has been set up by locals to scoop the beaten and bloodied from Syria’s streets.
The bravery of Syria’s medical professionals who continue to save lives while risking losing their own is awe-inspiring.
“When we receive serious casualties, we have two options: either we let them die, or we send them to hospital not knowing what will become of them,” says an anonymous Syrian medic. “Doctors are being harassed by security forces. But despite that risk, many are putting their lives in danger.”
With the situation so extreme, Elder admits the staying politically neutral is impossible, but also points to the saying ‘truth is the first casualty of war’.
“We know that the way the health service is being abused is just the tip of an iceberg, but the wider political context is much more complex that the picture that’s being painted.”
What is clear, however, is that medicine – and the humanitarian agencies that administer it – has become increasingly politicised, a frightening reality for those who are trained to help their fellow human beings, no matter what their political views are.
“Medical professionals have become a legitimate target,” Elder says. “That makes things dangerous for them. They are not soldiers; They are not trained to be on the front line.”
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Médecins Sans Frontières MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has collected testimonies from injured people and doctors from across Syria during the period between January 30 and February 6 2012.
Names and locations of the witnesses have been withheld for security reasons.
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