Syrian medics on the frontline: an interview with the Medics Under Fire campaign

It’s been almost six years since the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Since March 2011, an estimated 11 million Syrian refugees have fled their homeland, whilst a staggering 6.6 million internally displaced Syrian citizens still lie within Syria’s borders, having also had to flee their homes due to the conflict. Within Syria itself, 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The heartbreaking conflict shows no signs of ending any time soon. As President Assad and his Russian allies continue to bomb civilian homes, schools, and hospitals, there is sadly no peace for millions of men, women and children. Humanitarian aid workers and medical staff continue to risk their lives to tend to the sick with scarce resources. In light of this, I got in touch with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) who run the Medics Under Fire campaign alongside the NGO The Syria Campaign to find out more about the situation on the ground in Syria right now. 

As a humanitarian organisation, the focus of SAMS’ work is: “to provide medical care and relief to any patient in need, regardless of religious or political affiliation”. According to SAMS, the major threat to their facilities comes from airstrikes from the Syrian government and its allies. 94.7% of medical workers who have died in Syria have been killed at the hands of the Syrian government. In exact figures that’s 750 medical workers since the beginning of the Syria conflict, with a total of  52 staff who have not been killed by Syrian/Russian government attacks. As SAMS notes, these figures only include documented numbers. They estimate that the real number is much higher.

In light of this and the immense difficulties that come with both living and working in Syria at present, I wanted to find out more about the realities and challenges doctors are currently facing in Syria. This is what SAMS had to say.

Thank you for taking the time to undertake this interview for Voice of Salam – your time is very much appreciated.

Although the conflict in Syria has been going on for five years now, there’s been a much greater focus in the media over the last few weeks – in particular on Aleppo. Could you give a breakdown on the current situation and state of emergency?

Eastern Aleppo City was evacuated in December 2016. Evacuees were taken to the Aleppo countryside, Idlib, and Turkey, for the most critical medical cases. Aleppo countryside has seen aerial bombardment in the past few weeks. However, the situation in other parts of Syria remains critical, including the recent developments in Wadi Barada, located north-west of Damascus. The area has seen intense shelling, and the Ain Al-Fijah spring has been cut off, which provided drinking water to many of Damascus’s neighbourhoods. The situation in Wadi Barada must be addressed. 

What are some of the human rights violations taking place in Syria both before and during the war and from which side? Who are the perpetrators and to what level?

Physicians for Human Rights has well documented the range of human rights violations taking place against healthcare in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. They have documented 400 attacks on healthcare facilities and the deaths of 768 medical professionals, the majority of which were perpetrated by the Syrian government and its allies.

In January 2017, SAMS published its report The Failure of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 in Preventing Attacks on Healthcare in Syria, documenting 2016 as the most dangerous year for healthcare in Syria.

The Medics under Fire campaign is run by yourselves – The Syrian American Medical Society – and The Syria Campaign. Could you tell readers a little more about your organisation, campaign and the work that you do?

When the conflict in Syria began in 2011, SAMS expanded its capacity significantly to meet the growing needs and challenges of the medical crisis. SAMS has since supported healthcare throughout Syria, sponsoring field hospitals and ambulances, training and paying the salaries of Syrian medical personnel who are risking their lives to save others, and sending lifesaving humanitarian aid and medical equipment to where it is needed most. SAMS also supports Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries with critical psychosocial support, medical and dental care, and art therapy programs.

The Medics Under Fire Campaign was created to highlight the horrific conditions that medical personnel in Syria have been forced to work under since 2011. Medical workers, hospitals, and ambulances have become acceptable targets in the conflict, completely undermining the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law. SAMS has lost too many medical staff and rebuilt too many destroyed hospitals as a result of the Syrian government’s campaign of targeting healthcare. 

What are some of the main issues and vulnerabilities that medical professionals in Syria are currently facing?

Healthcare has continuously been used as a tool of war in Syria, with the Syrian government indiscriminately targeting hospitals and medical facilities. The targeted strikes on medical facilities have left medical personnel without the adequate tools or resources to treat patients. Since the onset of the crisis, over 700 medical workers have been killed, and every doctor’s death or hospital’s destruction means that thousands of people will be deprived of life-saving medical care. The remaining doctors know that they will be targeted by airstrikes, but they risk their lives to continue to provide healthcare to patients in need. Because there are so few doctors inside Syria, many are forced to practice medicine beyond their expertise, and often without the resources they would typically have. Our medical personnel make do with what they have, but unfortunately because access is routinely blocked into non-government held areas, we cannot deliver the supplies that they require.

Could you tell us about some of the personal accounts you’ve come across?

SAMS highlights many personal accounts on the homepage of our website under ‘Stories from the Field.’ We also produced Syrian Medical Voices from the Ground: The Ordeal of Syria’s Healthcare Professionals

As a non-political organisation fighting to raise awareness of the human rights abuses taking place in Syria and aid medics working on the ground since the onset of conflict, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced? Have the public been as receptive as you’d hoped?

We have had success in elevating voices of medical workers and attacks on healthcare. We were so amazed and moved by the tremendous support we received in December 2016 following the crisis in Aleppo. 27,000 people from 90 countries donated to our Aleppo Fund on Facebook, which raised over $1.5 million dollars. However, policy change has been limited and there has been very little change in the situation on the ground, despite global awareness and condemnation.

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For people out there who are currently disengaged or sceptical about the issues you work with, what would you say to them?

We would appeal to their humanity and ask them to see Syrians as men, women, and children like them. We understand that this crisis is now entering its sixth year, and there is a lot of compassion fatigue, but the world cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering that continues every single day. While politics have unfortunately played into the crisis, we must always remember the humanitarian side of the issue and the innocent lives that are at stake.

Where do you see your campaign going? What are your next steps and strategies?

SAMS recently released a report on the failure of the UNSC Resolution 2286, which condemned attacks on medical personnel. Until there is accountability for these war crimes, SAMS will continue to reinforce our hospitals for the safety of our doctors and patients, provide medical care for those in need, and advocate at the highest levels for their protection.

What do you envisage for the immediate future of Syria and the Syrian people?

We hope that the world continues to pay attention to the situation in Syria, not just Aleppo, and calls for protection of civilians. 

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How can we support the Syrian people, aid workers and medical professionals working in Syria?

SAMS is one of the most-trusted local Syrian NGOs working on the ground, both inside Syria and in refugee-host countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. 

Choosing local Syrian organizations, like SAMS, to donate to or volunteer with is an effective way to reach Syrian men, women, and children and provide medical support to those in need.

Thank for your time and I’d like to wish your campaign all the greatest success in the coming future!

[…]

So spread the message and raise awareness! For further information please visit:

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank SAMS for their time and assistance in undertaking this interview and wish them all the success in the world with their crucial inspiring work.

Image credits:

Syrian American Medical Society (Medics Under Fire) (c)

Feature image: Johannes Zielcke (CC) – photo of Golan Heights hospital (Quneitra, Golan Heights, Syria)

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Daraya, Symbol of Non-Violent Revolution and Self-Determination, Falls to the Syrian Regime

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Daraya: “[…] peaceful protests were subjected to violent repression. Flowers were met with bullets, protesters were rounded up en masse and detained.” Photo credit: Non-violent protests with protesters holding roses in Baniyas, May 6th 2011 – Syrian Freedom (CC BY 2.0)

By Leila Al Shami

Four years following its liberation, the predominantly agricultural town of Daraya, strategically located near Syrian capital, Damascus, has fallen to the regime. A deal was reached to evacuate the 4,000-8,000 civilians remaining there, out of a pre-uprising population of 300,000. The local fighters who defended their town so courageously will go to Idlib and join the resistance there.

The Daraya residents being evacuated know that they may never return to their homes. Photos circulated on social media showed people gathered at the graves of loved ones to say goodbye. Fears abound of a plan to cleanse opposition strongholds permanently, and in previous evacuation deals—even those carried out under UN auspices—many were detained by the regime, never to be seen again.

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But Daraya’s residents are desperate. A few days ago a group of women published a open letter to the world. They described the horrific conditions in the town. A regime-imposed siege, ongoing for 1,368 days, had blocked the entry of food and medical supplies. People were starving. They described the daily regime assault which has seen over 9,000 barrel bombs dropped on the town, as well as internationally prohibited poisonous gas and napalm. The hospital had been targeted and was out of operation. Agricultural land, the sole source of food, had been deliberately burned and destroyed. The women called on the international community to take action to end the violence and lift the siege. This letter followed months of protests held by women and children with the same demands. The first, and only, aid convoy to reach the town entered in June 2016. It contained medicine, mosquito nets and baby formula, but no food. ‘We can’t take medicine on an empty stomach,’ read a banner at a protest soon after.

Those who leave Daraya leave as heroes. Daraya is an iconic town for Syrian revolutionaries. It’s been a centre for the development of the thought and practice of non-violent resistance and has inspired civil disobedience across the country. And despite the horrific repression inflicted on the town, it’s had remarkable success in practicing local, autonomous self-organization. Revolutionary activist Razan Zeitouneh, who was herself kidnapped in 2013, said: “Daraya was a star before the revolution and a star during. What the young men and women of the city built took immense efforts and resulted in a small exemplary model for the future of Syria, the one we dream of. The activism in the city never ceased to amaze us for a minute… In Daraya, the signs calling for co-existence continued to be held high even when the entire country was falling into despair following every new massacre.”

In 2011, when the uprising began, a local coordination committee quickly emerged to organize anti-regime protests. The committee emphasized the importance of non-violent struggle and handed out leaflets calling for a democratic Syria and for equality between all religious and ethnic groups. As church bells rang in solidarity, protesters marched holding flowers, and handed bottles of water to the security forces sent to shoot them. ‘The army and people are one,’ they chanted.

One of those involved with the local coordination committee was a 26-year-old tailor called Ghiyath Matar. He earned the nickname ‘Little Gandhi’ for his commitment to peaceful resistance. Ghiyath was arrested by security forces on September6, 2011. A few days later his mutilated corpse was returned to his family and pregnant wife. In one of his last Facebook posts, Ghiyath said: “We chose non-violence not from cowardice or weakness, but out of moral conviction; we don’t want to reach victory by having destroyed the country.”

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Daraya

The principles of non-violent resistance that influenced Daraya’s youth had a history in the town. Unusually for Syria, a police state that ruthlessly suppresses independent organization, a group of young men and women aged between 15 and 25 established the Daraya Youth Group in 1998. They had been studying Quran under the religious scholar Abdul Akram Al Saqqa. Al Saqqa promoted social and political freedom and encouraged free thinking amongst his students. Because of his liberal views he was controversial amongst the Syrian ulema (religious authorities). He called for women to choose their own husbands and argued that women’s education was more important than whether or not they wore the veil. He introduced students to the work of Jawdat Said, an Islamist scholar who promoted non-violent thought and practice through the Quranic traditions as well as the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Al Saqqa’s work attracted the attention of the authorities and he was imprisoned in 2003 and 2011, but under his mentorship, the Daraya Youth Group organized actions such as cleaning the streets of their town, boycotting American products, and risky campaigns against bribery and corruption. In 2002 they demonstrated against the Israeli invasion of Jenin refugee camp and in 2003 they organized protests without government permission against the US invasion of Iraq. This activity led to the arrest of 24 members of the group. A few were released soon after, but the majority were sentenced to between three and four years in prison.

The peaceful protests were subjected to violent repression. Flowers were met with bullets, protesters were rounded up en masse and detained. In August 2012, following intense shelling, Syrian army troops stormed the town and committed one of the regime’s worst massacres. Some 400 men, women and children lost their lives in execution-style killings. Those attempting to flee were hunted down and shot. The bodies of the dead littered the streets or were thrown into mass graves.

In a scene that would be endlessly repeated, some Western commentators sought to exonerate the regime from wrongdoing. The celebrated journalist Robert Fisk visited Daraya shortly after the massacre, embedded with regime troops. He reported that the situation was the result of a Free Army hostage-taking and a prisoner exchange gone wrong, quoting sources saying that victims were relatives of government employees. Daraya’s local coordination committee issued a strong condemnation of Fisk’s report. They had never heard of the prisoner exchange story, questioned whether interviewees would be free to speak the truth in the presence of regime soldiers, and criticized Fisk for not meeting with opposition activists. Meanwhile, the American war reporter Janine Di Giovani also entered Daraya—without regime support—a few days after the massacre, and gave a harrowing account in her excellent book ‘The Morning They Came for Us’.

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Daraya: the spirit of the Syrian revolution, and the heartbeat of every rebel

Daraya was liberated by local rebels in November 2012. As the state withdrew, residents set up a Local Council to run the town’s affairs. One of those involved was anarchist Omar Aziz, who encouraged revolutionary Syrians to organize their communities independently from the Assadist state, and work towards advancing a social revolution.

Despite enormous challenges, Daraya’s local council has had remarkable success. It has established numerous offices to provide services to civilians, including media services, legal services and public relations (they maintain an excellent website). A relief office runs a soup kitchen which began providing three meals a day, although this frequency was reduced due to the siege. The council also tried to build self-sufficiency, growing beans, spinach and wheat. A medical office supervises the field hospital which provides for the sick and wounded. A services office is responsible for opening alternative roads when the main ones are inaccessible due to airstrikes or collapsed buildings.

The local council also aimed to unify civil and military efforts. Daraya is one of the few communities where the local Free Army brigade is part of the council’s organizational structure and subject to civil administrative control. Revolutionary women set up the Enab Baladi magazine to discuss events happening in their community and Syria more broadly and promote civil disobedience. Activists built anunderground library so residents could continue their education.

The people of Daraya have paid a heavy price for their dream of freedom. For four years they defended their autonomy from the Assadist state and kept going despite the bombing, despite the starvation siege. Their struggle will continue to be remembered and honoured by Syrian revolutionaries everywhere.

Leila Al Shami is a British Syrian who has been involved in human rights and social justice struggles in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East since 2000. She is the co-author of “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War” with Robin Yassin-Kassab, and a contributor to “Khiyana-Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution”. A version of this story was originally published on her blog.

Credits:

Re-shared from Global Voices (26/08/2016)

Additional imagery taken from Leila’s original article and blog

Feature image: Poo.243 (Flickr)

‘When They Took Me Inside’ Syria’s Saydnaya Prison, ‘I Could Smell the Torture’

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Screenshot from ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International (YouTube)

Written by: Joey Ayoub

At least 17,723 Syrians have died in custody since 2011, a new damning report by the international human rights group Amnesty International has revealed. The report, entitled “‘It Breaks The Human’: Torture, Disease and Death in Syria’s Prisons”, started of with what is common knowledge by now, namely that:

Torture and other ill-treatment have been perpetrated by the Syrian intelligence services and other state forces for decades, fostered by a culture of impunity that is reinforced by Syrian legislation. However, since the current crisis in Syria began in 2011, the situation has become catastrophic, with torture committed on a massive scale.

But one particular prison highlighted by Amnesty International’s report may be the most notorious of them all. In a Facebook post, the well-known Syrian intellectual and dissident in exile Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, who has himself spent 16 years in regime prisons for being a member of a communist pro-democracy group, described it as “the most horrible place on earth”. Eyal Weizman, director of theForensic Architecture agency of Goldsmiths, University of London, even told British newspaper the Guardian “that the building is, itself, an architectural instrument of torture.”

Al-Haj Saleh and Weizman are both referring to Saydnaya prison, a military prison facility located 30 kilometers north of Damascus. It was this prison that Amnesty International attempted to expose in collaboration with Forensic Architecture and backed by first-hand testimony of 65 torture survivors.

Their accounts bear witness to some of the horrors endured by dissidents of the regime inside Saydnaya since the start of the revolution in 2011. Tales of the many methods of torture, including rape, were featured in the short documentary ‘Inside Saydnaya’ released by Amnesty International to coincide with the publication of the report.

One man, named ‘Jamal A’ by Amnesty International to protect his identity, was arrested for helping civilians displaced by the fighting and sent to Saydnaya in October 2012, where he stayed until January 2014. He recalls:

When we first arrived, they put us all in the shower [area of the cell], on top of each other. We were naked of course. My penis was touching [a fellow detainee’s] back. I got cramp and had to move my leg, and my friend took the space that I made. Then I accidentally put my foot down on his penis. He screamed. For this, they were beating us with a steel bar on the front of the palms. I had had an operation on my hand earlier, and we told them [but] they just concentrated on that spot, and beat it harder. The surgery meant that I had 10 times the pain.

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Salam featured in ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International YouTube

‘Salam’, a lawyer from Aleppo, was arrested in September 2011 and sent to Saydnaya from January 2012 to June 2014 for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. He told Amnesty International that he could ‘smell the torture’ as soon as he entered the prison:

When they took me inside the prison, I could smell the torture. It’s a particular smell of humidity, blood and sweat; it’s the torture smell. They took me three floors underground. There were seven of us after the beatings. We were taken into our cell. It was about 2.5 meters by 3 meters. There was a big wall at the end of the room with a hole. There is no shower, just a toilet. It’s dirty and wet; water is leaking from the roof of the cell. It’s totally dark; there is no light; you can’t even see the other people in the same room with you.

Another activist, ‘Shappal’, who advocated for the rights of Kurds in Syria, said he was repeatedly beaten while the guards yelled ‘Bashar is your God’, referring to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, who has clung to power throughout the last five years of civil war:

They brought the food, but it was very little. They spent two hours beating us and saying ‘Bashar is your God’. They did the same for the detainees in the other solitary cells – we could hear them coming to us, cell by cell, and going down the row after us. Of course the other solitary [underground] cells were next to each other in a row, but the sound of beating was so loud that it could reach the sky.

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Screenshot from ‘Inside Saydnaya’, Amnesty International’s video report of its findings. Source: Amnesty International YouTube

‘A testimony to hold the mass-murdering Syrian regime accountable’

These testimonies follow a report released by the UN Commission of Inquiry in February 2016 in which the killings of detainees occurring between 10 March, 2011 and 30 November, 2015 were examined based on 621 interviews. It concluded:

Detainees held by the Government were beaten to death, or died as a result of injuries sustained due to torture. Others perished as a consequence of inhuman living conditions. The Government has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts. Based on the same conduct, war crimes have also been committed.

In a statement released with the report, Philip Luther, the director at Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program, stressed that the international community, specifically the governments of Russia and the US, must commit to ending these practices

The international community, in particular Russia and the USA, which are co-chairing peace talks on Syria, must bring these abuses to the top of the agenda in their discussions with both the authorities and armed groups and press them to end the use of torture and other ill-treatment.

Speaking to Global Voices, Yassin Swehat, a Spanish-Syrian blogger, journalist and co-founder of the commentary site Al Jumhuriya, reflected:

Although Amnesty’s report does not contain new information for Syrians who have lived and are living under the threat of arrest every day, subjected to the mechanism of authoritarianism surrounding the issue of detentions, worsened by rampant corruption (to know the prisoner’s conditions, to locate him, to deliver clothes or medicine, or to know if he’s even alive), it is a very important report that documents how the second Assad era, the era of Bashar, created its private iconic prison that followed the iconic Tadmur prison of the first Assad era, the era of [Bashar’s father] Hafez al Assad.

Unfortunately, I worry that the fate of this report will be similar to the [2014] Caesar leaks [detailing the torture and execution of prisoners by Syrian authorities], as the world proved its indifference towards human rights violations practiced by the regime and its allies.

But this report is a very important document, and will have importance in the Syrian historical memory without a doubt, and I hope that it carries legal importance one day, like a testimony to hold the mass-murdering Syrian regime accountable.

Luna Watfa, the co-founder of Woman Organization for Syrian Prisoners and a former detainee herself, who spent 13 months in Syrian government prisons, asked her Twitter followers to read Amnesty’s report:

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The Committee to Protect Journalists took this opportunity to remind us of a journalist for Palestine Today, Bilal Ahmed Bilal, who died in December 2013, nearly two years after being sent to Saydnaya:

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Credits:

Article written by: Joey Ayoub, first published via Global Voices (19/08/2016)

Feature image: Surian Soosay