Writer: Shreyas Raman writes from India where he notices the different perspectives that thousands of diverse people have.
The United Nations, in August 2015, estimated that over 250,000 people had been killed in the Syrian civil war. Shocking as this figure may be, it would have been far, far greater if it were not for the selfless work of doctors and nurses from the Doctors Without Borders organization. These brave individuals have worked tirelessly, day in and day out in places where no person would feel safe. They have striven to provide first aid to bombing victims though they themselves could have been killed by a second air strike. They have assisted with the birth of children who would otherwise never have had a chance to see this world. They have sacrificed luxury and safety to work for those who cannot afford either. And they have done so without once asking for credit or publicizing their actions.
In 2014, doctors in Syria distributed 4,900 medical kits, performed 4,400 emergency life-saving surgeries, and assisted with 1,400 successful births. One would expect that these fearless men and women would be rewarded for their work. And what was their latest reward? An airstrike on their Al-Quds Hospital in Aleppo, which killed at least 49 patients and 6 medical staff. According to witnesses, the hospital was purposely targeted and directly bombed. The first bomb alone reduced the building to rubble and the others fell on surrounding areas, which caused further chaos. In April this year, a hospital run by Reporters Without Borders in collaboration with the Red Cross was bombed directly, leading to the tragic death of 30 people.
Yet that is not the most saddening aspect of the situation. Arguably the most unfortunate development is that this is now a regular incident. Medical personnel have gotten used to the sound of buildings crumbling to dust, the screams of people in agony, and their colleagues never returning from a hard day’s work. Death and injury are daily realities. There are children in these hospitals whose earliest childhood memories will be bloodied victims of airstrikes and chaotic scenes of destruction.
The medical personnel in this region have witnessed, firsthand, the sorrow and tragedy of the Syrian civil war. Doctors Without Borders facilities alone recorded over 7,000 deaths and 150,000 injuries in 2015. In early May this year, Dr. Conor Kenny from Ireland had to deal with a man so distraught he did not care for his own life anymore. His friends brought in the man to the makeshift clinic. He was struggling, lashing out with his limbs and screaming in agony. This man had no real physical injuries. However, his mental wounds were far worse than any bullet hole or severed leg. He had just watched his sister, the last remaining member of his family be crushed by rubble from an airstrike. He was trying to swallow his own tongue and intentionally cause self-harm, because he simply had no more purpose in life. All he ever knew had been taken from him. Dr. Kenny and the other men managed to restrain him and save his life, but this incident left the doctor shaken. Incidents like these can never fade from one’s memories and are a direct consequence of the violence in the region. These doctors have to face patients in these situations nearly everyday.
Many towns like Khan Eshiesh have been completely locked out and blocked off by rebel forces. Most necessities and essentials like fuel and flour are on the verge of running out and medicine is hard to come by. The prices of food have almost doubled in recent days. Entrance roads to the town have been closed down and supplies are hard to come by.
In the nearby town of Zakia, there is just one road to the town and that is the only road that also connects to Khan Eshieh. The locals call this road, ‘The Death Road’ because many, many doctors and medical personnel coming into the town to help the people of Zakia and Khan Eshieh have been killed while travelling. Apart from the threat of being killed, these bravehearts have to also face the possibility of being kidnapped by ISIS. In January 2014, the terrorist group kidnapped 13 medical personnel who were tending to the wounded in the civil war.
Now, with the growing intensity of airstrikes and the extent of violence in 2016, the situation is becoming too much for even these men and women to endure. Many who weren’t killed have left, often due to grievous injury. Amidst the dwindling number of medical staff, doctors in some regions have been forced to move their clinics and treatment areas to caves and remote regions. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this situation is that the real issue at hand has been lost amidst the diplomacy and disputes of nations. While the United Nations supported the claim that there was a ceasefire in place, the Yamadia hospital near the Syria-Turkey border was being bombed. In late March, nearly 40 bombs were rained down on the building, collapsing it into rubble. The hospital had to then move to a school building, but that too was bombed. Dr. Abu Ali suffered injuries leading to a broken arm and and severe chest wounds. However, he and the other surviving staff of Yamadia hospital did not lose heart and they continued to dutifully treat the wounded, using nearby caves as makeshift clinics.
The doctors on the ground are people trained to take care of the wounded in general. However, there is a crushing lack of specialists in the region. Because of this, many patients cannot receive the emergency care they require and have to be operated on by general physicians. For example, most amputations have to be conducted because there are no vascular specialists in the area. The problem is only compounded by a lack of resources and shortage of emergency supplies. In a hospital in East Ghouta, a provision has been made limiting all patients to a maximum of two litres of life-saving IV drip fluid per day. This limit has been set regardless of the patient’s requirements. Pushed for resources, the hospital cannot spare a drop the fluid because it could be critical in saving another life.
This is the situation that doctors on the frontlines have to face. These courageous men and women were not forced into working in the battlefields. They chose to go there of their accord, out of the goodness of their spirit and their sense of duty to help the helpless. They do not care if a patient is Syrian or Jordanian, government soldier or rebel, man or woman. Their job is to save lives, and so while the war outside rages on, the struggle within doors is equally intense. These are the unsung heroes of the war, and the longer this continues, the greater the risk of them becoming just another casualty.