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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