Medical sector under fire in Syria’s bloody war
GAZIANTEP (Turkey) - A ttacks on medical personnel and facilities, a constant threat throughout the brutal war in Syria, appear to be becoming a war strategy followed by all parties to the conflict, especially the Syrian regime. There has recently been a sharp escalation in attacks and counter-attacks on hospitals in Aleppo.
The latest violence, in which two hospitals were destroyed in opposition areas and another damaged on the government side, triggered a global outcry and a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council condemning attacks on health workers as war crimes.
Hospital attacks have made life untenable for many Syrians, who are suffering deteriorating health conditions from years of war in which hundreds of medical personnel have been killed and thousands have fled the country.
More than 650 medical workers have been killed in attacks since the onset of the conflict in March 2011, according to a source in the Ministry of Health in the exiled opposition government.
“Some 200 hospitals, dispensaries and field hospices have been targeted by the regime forces, driving thousands of medics to flee from opposition areas and the country altogether. Also dozens of doctors and nurses are still detained in the regime’s prisons, causing acute shortages in medical staff,” said the source, who asked for anonymity.
In Aleppo, two doctors, including the only paediatrician in the city, Dr Wassim Moaz, were killed April 27th in a suspected Russian or regime air strike that destroyed Al-Quds Hospital. Doctors without Borders (MSF) said eight doctors and 28 nurses worked at the facility, which it supported.
“Some 350,000 people live in the opposition-controlled area of Aleppo, where no more than ten doctors are still operating,” the source said. “Specialists in many fields, including cardiologists, neurologists and chronic disease professionals, do not exist while drugs and medical supplies are hardly available.”
According to the Order of Physicians in Aleppo, as many as 2,500 medical doctors were based in the city before the war. The number has dwindled to less than 100 in both parts of the city today.
Fleeing air strikes and barrel bombs, many medical facilities have relocated to relatively safer areas on the northern border with Turkey, where field hospitals were set up with the backing of international charities and humanitarian organisations.
“Facilities are being funded by European organisations, such as Medical and Hand in Hand, in addition to MSF, which runs eight field hospitals in the governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. Many of those have been bombarded, especially in the city of Aazaz,” said Dr Mohamad Abou Hamed, a physician who works with MSF.
The director of a field hospital on the Syrian-Turkish border pointed out that medical care is largely dispensed by visiting volunteer doctors. “They come mainly from European countries, Egypt and Gaza Strip. [They] spend a month here, sometimes carrying out several surgeries a day. This is a temporary arrangement to compensate for the sharp shortage in medical staff, which is difficult to find since many had left the country,” said the director, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hospitals in regime-held territory have been targeted by rebels. The Canadian Hospital in Aleppo, among the biggest in the Middle East, was destroyed by two trucks laden with 100 tonnes of explosives in 2013, after it was transformed into a military base for the Syrian Army.
Al Dabit Maternity Hospital was seriously damaged by artillery fire in the latest round of hospital attacks in Aleppo. Three women were killed and 17 others injured.
Private clinics were not spared. Dr Maad Abdel Aziz was forced to become a roving medic, offering his services on the roadside, following the destruction of his clinic in Maarat al Naaman in north-western Syria in 2014.
“I am a general physician,” Abdel Aziz said. “I can only provide primary care and help diagnose cases that need hospitalisation. After the bombing of the clinic, I placed all the equipment I could save in my car and have since been travelling around to dispense my services.
“I go near battlefield to tend to the wounded but I am usually parked on the Aleppo-Latakia highway and the people know where to find me now.”
In the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk near Damascus, which had a pre-war population of more than 500,000, all 15 medical facilities have been destroyed and the estimated 2,700 medics have fled, except for one doctor, providing care to the remaining 20,000 people in the camp.
In territories held by the Islamic State (ISIS), male gynaecologists were banned from practicing, leaving the specialty in the hands of midwives.
“Most gynaecologists had no choice but to leave, while those who remained are working as general physicians. Few exceptions were made in places where there are no female doctors or midwives but on condition that a woman would examine the patient and communicate findings to the male doctor,” a gynaecologists who left ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa, said.