Chilling new findings released Wednesday reveal that May was the deadliest month yet for medical workers attempting to help the sick and wounded in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Along with revelations that Syria just experienced some of the bloodiest days of its conflict to date, with over 700 dead in just 48 hours, news that doctors are increasingly being targeted goes to show that the war tearing Syria apart is leaving no one unscathed.
The nonprofit human rights organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said that 30 health professionals were killed in May: the highest toll in any month yet in a war that has frequently seen doctors become the victims of violence. June was not much better. Last month, Syria witnessed 12 attacks on medical facilities: the second highest number in a single month since December 2012. Physicians for Human Rights has been tracking all deliberate attacks on medical personnel and facilities since then in an interactive map. While rebels have targeted medical personnel at times, the vast majority of the attacks — up to 99 percent, according to PHR — were carried out by government forces. This constitutes a grave violation of international humanitarian law, the formal name for the laws of war.
Syria descended into civil war after peaceful protests calling for the ouster of longstanding President Bashar al-Assad were met with harsh government repression in 2011. Full-scale fighting erupted the following year, with a deeply fractured opposition battling the Syrian military for control over cities and villages across the country. According to the United Nations, almost all parties to the civil war have likely committed war crimes and civilians have often become targets. Now, the death toll tops an estimated 160,000 — a more precise death toll is currently impossible to come by.
“More than three years into the war, attacks on health care in Syria have not slowed down, but have become the norm,” said Erin Gallagher, PHR’s director of emergency investigations and response. “As the war wears on, more and more civilians need medical care, yet fewer medical facilities are functioning and fewer medical personnel are working in Syria,” she added. “This has compounded an already dire humanitarian situation.”
Doctors aren’t just caught in the ceasefire in Syria: they’re actually at a great risk just due to their profession. According to the report, 43 percent of the 526 medical personnel slain throughout the civil war were specifically targeted killing.
PHR shared this data with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for inclusion in an upcoming report of the U.N. Secretary General to the U.N. Security Council. Speaking on condition of anonymity and using a pseudonym, Dr. Abo Mayar, an orthopedic surgeon by training, told PHR about how he had survived five bombings of his medical facility by government troops.
He said that doctors face a “continuous feeling of fear because all those who work in this establishment are at risk of death, and we don’t know when it will be our turn.” However, he added that death was not his greatest fear. “I am not afraid of death, but I am afraid I will lose my hands, and all my work is within my hands,” he said. Despite resettling with his family in Turkey, Dr. Mayar still makes an hours-long trip across the border every week to return to a field clinic he established with other health professionals. He, along with his coworkers, struggle with depression, anxiety and fatigue.
28-year-old Dr. B, also speaking anonymously, told PHR he believes doctors are targeted by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for serving all patients who come to them, including members of the opposition. Despite chronic shortages of medical personal and well-run facilities, Dr. B is determined to continue his work. Dr. B reports treating victims of torture and beatings by government officials and rebels alike, and says that the stress of the work has come at a heavy psychological cost. Nonetheless, he is resolved to continue with his work, saying, “I will die when my time comes.”