Syria War-Zone Medic Explains Government's Tactic Of Targeting Health Care

12/09/2013 06:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2015
Hunter Stuart

NEW YORK -- The Syrian regime has implemented a new "weapon of war" by targeting health care in many areas of the war-torn country, a British-Syrian doctor told The Huffington Post in an interview Monday.

By arresting doctors and nurses and dropping bombs on hospitals in opposition areas, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has significantly cut down on available health care in the embattled Middle Eastern nation, where medical supplies are scarce and a lack of sanitation and immunizations has led to outbreaks of infectious diseases like measles, typhoid and polio, said Dr. Rola Hallam, an anesthesiologist in London who makes regular trips to Syria to volunteer as a war-zone medic.

"We estimate there are about 500 doctors and nurses and aid workers under arrest currently," said Hallam, who volunteers with Hand In Hand For Syria, a United Kingdom-registered charity founded by Syrian expatriates that is helping rebuild the country's medical infrastructure. "Twelve of my colleagues were arrested at their hospital accommodation [in Damascus] by security forces last week. They were charged with treating civilians in an opposition area."

Syrian warplanes have also bombed hospitals in rebel-held areas, said the 33-year-old Hallam at HuffPost's Manhattan offices. "Sometimes there's a first strike and then they'll wait for medics to show up, and then strike again," she said, adding that makeshift "field hospitals" have sprung up in abandoned buildings or people's basements, where they are less conspicuous to fighter jets.

Reports by Amnesty International and the United Nations back up Hallam's assertions that Assad's army has targeted medical facilities. The U.N. said in September that rebel groups including Al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army have also led attacks on hospitals in the country.

The targeting of medics, in addition to the large number of doctors who have fled the country, means qualified medical experts are in short supply, explained Hallam, whose family members in Damascus and Homs have been scattered by the civil war. "In one area of eastern Damascus," Hallam said, "there's only one doctor serving 90,000 people."

But perhaps most worrying are the fates of those Syrians who are blockaded by government forces and are unable to access medicine or basic food supplies. There are about 250,000 people living in besieged areas across the country, the U.N. estimates, from the suburbs of Damascus to the cities of Homs (in western Syria) and Daraa (near the southern Jordan border). In such areas, where the government has a stranglehold on what gets in and out, "people are literally starving to death," Hallam said. "It's the most vulnerable [who are dying] -- small children and the elderly. Others are so hungry they are mixing leaves with their rice or eating cats and donkeys to get sustenance."

"In some areas that have been besieged for over a year, because there's no immunizations and no sanitation, you've got the spread of infectious diseases like polio, typhoid and measles," Hallam also said, noting that such deaths are easily preventable.

Hallam questioned why the U.N. wasn't doing more to solve Syria's humanitarian crisis. Although the U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement in October calling on both sides to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilian populations, Hallam criticized the statement for being "non-binding."

"A non-binding statement means you're at the will of the Syrian government as to whether they'll allow the implementation of it or not," Hallam explained. "International agencies on the ground [in Syria] need to be allowed to cross into these besieged areas to deliver humanitarian aid. The U.N. showed with the chemical weapons issue that it was capable of doing that. The chemical weapons inspectors are working in safety, crossing conflict lines. Why can't we do the same with aid agencies? Why can't we give the same importance to humanitarian assistance that we have for the chemical weapons issue?

"It would allow us to save more lives."

WATCH: Syria war zone medic Rola Hallam on HuffPost Live (story continues below)

WATCH: A BBC documentary featuring Dr. Rola Hallam's work delivering emergency medical aid to casualties of the Syrian war. (WARNING: Some scenes may be disturbing.)

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