Exclusive Commentary: The War on Physicians and Health Workers in Syria

By Leonard S. Rubenstein, JD

A new report by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights and the Syrian American Medical Society recounts the experiences of 27 physicians and other health workers in Syria (all but two of them Syrian) who struggle to provide trauma care and health services to a population under assault.    

They mostly work in temporary, makeshift field hospitals, treating horrific injuries barrel bombs and other ordnance, but these facilities, along medical staff and ambulances are themselves targeted—so often and intensively, in fact, that in some opposition-controlled areas of Syria, patients fear going to field hospitals for needed care. One doctor said, “Unless they feel their life is in danger, many people won’t go to hospital because it is targeted for bombardment.”
 
Despite shortages of supplies, staff, and equipment, the medical work continues, sometimes with a brief hiatus to repair damage from shelling or bombing.  But it forces wrenching triage decisions, and also means that care for chronic conditions as well as once-rare infectious diseases like tuberculosis, often goes untreated.
 
One of the more remarkable findings was that of the 25 Syrian health professionals interviewed, 6 had been arrested for the alleged “crime” of treating members of the opposition. While in custody, interrogators demanded confessions for having provided such treatment, under threat of further torture, but as one said, “The most important thing was not to reveal my role in medical work” because it could even worse punishment.
 
The dangers, the deaths of colleagues and the flight of many others, the long hours and the pressures of practice without adequate resources have led to personal suffering among the health professionals.  But they continue to try to serve the Syrian people. What they want most of all is for international community to offer them protection
 
—Leonard S. Rubenstein, JD, is director of the Program on Human Rights, Health and Conflict at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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