x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Doctors are suffering silently as Syria's crisis continues

Medical professionals in Syria are squeezed no matter where they turn: threatened if they stay, ostracised if they go. A health disaster is looming in their country and doctors, above all, need to be given the chance to be trained or continue their training.

Three weeks after the massacre in the Syrian town of Daraya on August 27 - the bloodiest single day of carnage in the Syrian uprising - villagers made a gruesome discovery: 33 dead bodies had been tossed into the bottom of a well at a nearby farm.

The victims had apparently been pushed into the well with their hands tied behind their backs. They were then blown to pieces by explosives tossed down on top of them. The remains were later brought to the area's hospital by a resident.

The story of these people's suffering was retold to me by a Syrian doctor who recently left the country. Anwar Herata, who had been an orthopaedic specialist at the National Daraya Hospital since the beginning of the uprising, offers a rare first-hand account of the bloodshed in that town.

His account is consistent with videos and other reporting from activists and journalists in the region.

It appears that about 1,000 people were killed in the strategic town less than 10 kilometres from Damascus. In October, activists said 100 bodies were found in the hospital of people summarily executed.

A day before the massacre began, Dr Herata said in a recent interview, military vehicles and troops rolled into town. Security forces began asking for identity cards; they would send those back down the motorway if they were not from the town. Hospital personnel were also sent back and the hospital was closed; some believe it was used by government snipers during the killing.

"The next day the massacre took place," he said. "In Solaiman Al-Dairani Mosque alone, 122 people were killed after residents took refuge from the shelling."

Even then, murder was no stranger to Daraya. In the early months of the uprising, National Daraya Hospital received six to eight patients with serious gunshot wounds on most Fridays, and one or two on other days. "A gunshot in the head, a penetrating chest gunshot," Dr Herata told me. "Most of them would die or be taken away by security forces."

Victims would be brought to the hospital by civilian cars - ambulances were not allowed to transfer patients from protest areas. If victims survived, they would then be taken away by security forces to face their fate - sometimes even before their medical situation improved.

Dr Herata remembers one victim well - Mohammed Al Dabbas, an activist from Daraya who was dragged away from the hospital's emergency room while he was still anaesthetised. During one protest he was shot in the chest and shoulder.

According to the doctor, Mr Al Dabbas had been wanted by the regime for five months because of his activism. His crime? Placing the revolutionaries' flag on the local municipality building and taking part in protests.

"The security forces took him from the emergency room while cussing and cursing the doctors for attempting to treat him," he said. "They took him to the military hospital, which is essentially a graveyard for wounded protesters."

The daily horrors Dr Herata witnessed in the hospital underline not only the regime's extreme violence but also the thuggish nature of the regime's affiliates. But it also highlights something else: the impossible situation of many of those who are still working in the country's government institutions.

Although many of his colleagues sympathise with the uprising and the protesters, Dr Herata said, they hide their feelings or risk being reported. Some of the doctors are regime supporters who question their colleagues if they try to treat wounded protesters. "We would tell them this is our job," he said.

He says one of his friends, who worked for Al Mujtahid Hospital in Damascus, was killed after security forces thought he had provided bandages to field hospitals. Bandages bearing the hospital's name were found in a raid of the field clinic. The security forces asked who from the area worked for Al Mujtahid.

"He was gunned down without an investigation," Dr Herata said, "although he has nothing to do with field hospitals."

In another instance, two security personnel came to the hospital from a nearby checkpoint to be treated for flu. One of the soldiers asked for extra medicine for his colleague and when the doctor refused to do this without checking the patient, the officer warned him not to be "big-headed". When the doctor insisted, the officer called his superior and six soldiers came to the hospital and took away the doctor along with a colleague who tried to help him.

This environment, Dr Herata says, is creating a climate of fear; medical professionals are leaving the country although they are desperately needed. Those who stay face special scrutiny from the regime's forces.

Haidar Ali Al Fandi, a doctor I knew during my university studies in Damascus, was killed in the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor in September after security forces raided his home and shot him because he had turned his house into a field hospital.

Medical professionals in Syria are squeezed no matter where they turn: threatened if they stay, ostracised if they go. A health disaster is looming in their country and doctors, above all, need to be given the chance to be trained or continue their training. At the very least, Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries could use their services while Syria's crisis continues. Efforts should perhaps be made to link doctors who have fled the violence with their countrymen in camps on the border.

Perhaps one day Dr Herata will be able to help Syrians with medicine. Until then, his recollections of Syria's horrors is the best he can do.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140