"For the Syrian regime, doctors are as good as terrorists," Dr K. tells Doctors Without Borders.
K., whose name was withheld for safety reasons, is a surgeon in a private hospital in northwestern Syria. He was forced to flee his town when government soldiers took over. "They took over the city twice last year. When they came, I had to leave because they arrest doctors who treat the wounded. They came into the hospital and took a patient right from the ward," he said.
Two years into the conflict, a new report by the international aid group Doctors Without Borders highlights the devastating toll the war has taken on health care in Syria. Not only are the country's hospitals destroyed and its medicine stocks depleted, but medical assistance has become a weapon. "Providing medical care was transformed into an act of resistance, a crime, and medical structures became military targets," the report notes.
Hospitals in Syria are now being used as a tool in the military strategies of the parties to the conflict. In “liberated” areas, some hospitals are being set up or transformed into “Free Syrian Army (FSA) hospitals” or hospitals established with the goal of “supporting the Revolution.” As a result, these hospitals are at risk of becoming targets and civilians are rarely accepted.
Accounts from doctors and patients revealed that hospitals were being scrutinized by the security forces, and that people were being arrested and tortured inside them. Doctors risked being labeled “enemies of the regime” for treating the injured, which could lead to their arrest, imprisonment, torture or even death. People hurt at protests therefore stopped going to public hospitals with similar fears of being tortured, arrested, or refused care, and were essentially forced to entrust their health to clandestine networks of medical workers.
Numerous facilities have been destroyed and medicine supplies dwindle after two years of conflict, DWB notes. Pharmacies face extreme shortages. Power in many neighborhoods is scarce, forcing medical facilities to run on fuel-costly generators. Field hospitals lack basic supplies and are often targeted by the regime. Reaching health care providers in the country's war-torn cities regularly requires crossing dangerous front lines. The overwhelming need for trauma treatment has taken attention and resources away from basic assistance and the care of chronic illnesses. Children haven't received vaccinations in months. Giving birth is increasingly risky.
In addition, international relief organizations are experiencing difficulties in reaching patients. DWB explains that international aid has been channeled through local organizations and distributed from Damascus. However, the Syrian Vice Minister of International Affairs and Expatriates who oversees the relief effort is not permitting new international organizations to contribute aid, despite a disastrous lack of it.
According to the International Red Cross, dozens of Syrians lose their lives every day because of a lack of health care. "Many lives could be saved and serious disabilities prevented if only the wounded had timely access to properly equipped health-care facilities," the ICRC's Dr. Andrea Reis said in a March 1 press release.
The U.N. estimates more than 70,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in March 2011. More than 1 million Syrians have fled the war. "With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling toward full-scale disaster," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said on Wednesday.
Read the full report by Doctors Without Borders here.