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Syrian doctors risk it all to save lives

09 Dec 2016

The air strikes came just minutes apart that morning, shattering a large, Médecins Sans Frontières-supported hospital in Syria’s Idlib province. Twenty-five people were killed, including five children. Among the adult fatalities were a doctor, a chief nurse, five nurses and a lab technician. The raids were carried out by forces loyal to the Syrian government.

“Some of the victims were patients lying in their hospital beds, others were visiting their relatives,” recalled Dr Mazen, the orthopaedic surgeon who worked at the hospital until it was crushed by a string of consecutive strikes, also known as ‘double taps,’ on February 15, 2016. “Our hospital was reduced to rubble, and the only reason I survived was because I was 15 minutes late to work.” As all hell broke loose, Dr Mazen rushed along with volunteer rescuers to evacuate the survivors they could find to the nearest medical facility — the Central Hospital in the northwest Syrian town of Maaret al-Numan. But the nightmare was not over as Syrian air forces then fired two missiles at the Central Hospital.

“There are days when we have to treat more than 100 people at once, we see patients lying on the floor screaming in pain, but we just can’t get to everyone fast enough”

Scores of hospitals and medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed since the outbreak of war in 2011, notably by air strikes, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to adequate healthcare. In addition, hundreds of doctors and other medical professionals have been killed, with many others detained and tortured for daring to provide care to people in “enemy” territory. Because of the staff shortages, doctors still working face an enormous workload. “There are days when we have to treat more than 100 people at once, we see patients lying on the floor screaming in pain, but we just can’t get to everyone fast enough,” said Dr Ahmad another surgeon, who works at an Médecins Sans Frontières -supported hospital near the town of Jisr al-Shughour, not far from the Turkish border. “It is as though Syrian air forces and those of its allies are seeking to maximize the number of civilian casualties; this is clear when markets, bakeries, town squares and hospitals are hit. In Syria, the most dangerous places to be are in a hospital or an ambulance.”
 

“We hide our hospitals and cover our ambulances with mud in order to disguise them. The building housing this hospital used to be a cheese factory, but we turned it into a fully functioning hospital. Working conditions are not ideal but we are trying our best,” Dr Ahmad said. Others have set up medical facilities in abandoned poultry farms or empty school buildings. “This means that our patients aren’t getting the quality care they need, because these buildings were not designed to be hospitals. We also lack a lot of essential equipment.” 

Dr Abdallah, who ran an Médecins Sans Frontières-supported has also had a very close brush with death. “Our hospital was bombed on November 3,” he said. Two other hospitals in Aleppo countryside were also hit on the same day. “It was a black day for healthcare in Aleppo,” he said. As a safety procedure, staff had covered the building housing the hospital with a two-metre-high dirt barrier. They also ensured no one ever filmed the facility, so that its exact location could not be discovered. Nonetheless, it too came under attack. First one strike, and minutes later, another. “Those who could walk were sent away straight after the first raid; we knew another strike was imminent. The others were packed into the panic room. There were 50 of us in there when the second rocket hit 10 minutes later. Three floors were immediately crushed, one on top of the other, like a layered pastry cake. The strikes also left a hole in the ceiling of our shelter; everyone climbed out through there.”

"Three floors were immediately crushed, one on top of the other, like a layered pastry cake. The strikes also left a hole in the ceiling of our shelter; everyone climbed out through there"

Medical staff in Médecins Sans Frontières -supported hospitals in Idlib province reported 54 attacks on health care staff and facilities in the past 6 months. Even after surviving his hospital’s destruction, Dr Abdallajh is now looking for a new location to start working again. “We will not stop fulfilling our humanitarian duty. We as Syrian doctors cannot give up on our people. I don’t blame anyone who left, either to work on the Turkish border or in Europe. But if we all went away, who would help those left behind, who have no one to turn to?”