Syria’s medical workers are still fighting for justice

On the 10th anniversary of the Syrian conflict, the regime’s attacks on healthcare workers remain unpunished.

IDLIB, SYRIA - JANUARY 30 : A stretcher is seen outside a hospital near collapsed and damaged buildings after Russian warplanes hit residential areas in Idlib, a de-escalation zone in northwestern Syr
A stretcher is seen outside a hospital damaged by a Russian airstrike in Idlib, northwestern Syria on January 30, 2020. [Izzeddin Idilbi/Anadolu Agency]

Every day when I wake up, I think about August 18, 2012 – the day I finally saw the sun after weeks in captivity.

For the “crime” of providing healthcare to injured protesters, the Syrian government imprisoned and tortured me at the Military Intelligence Directorate in Aleppo for 17 days. It felt like I was stuck in a cemetery for the living dead – all we could do was breathe, and scream.

I was released only after being forced to sign a pledge to not deliver health services to the government’s perceived adversaries. When I took my first breath under the bright sun as a free man, however, I made another pledge – that I would not only provide healthcare without discrimination, but also document the Syrian government’s heinous crimes against all civilians, including healthcare workers. And to this day, I am driven by this commitment.

A decade of persecution

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Syrian conflict. For a decade, my country endured unconscionable atrocities committed with impunity. Since March 2011, the Syrian government has consistently confronted the voices calling for freedom, democracy and social justice with various brutal means of suppression. In its relentless efforts to stifle dissent, the regime also targeted medical professionals, like myself, who dared to provide healthcare to anti-government protesters.

In the early days of the uprising, healthcare professionals formed several underground medical groups to help the civilians who were under attack by the government and in desperate need of healthcare. I was also part of one such group, “Noor Alhayat” (The light of life).

On June 7, 2012, the regime arrested three medical students from our group. That day, an officer from the security branch that arrested them called the mother of one of the students and said, “You did not raise your kid well. We will teach him how to behave.”

After 15 days, their bodies were returned to their families. They had blackened bruises from beatings, extracted nails and teeth, broken limbs and bullets in their heads.

With the violent murder of my three young colleagues, the regime sent a clear message to all healthcare workers in Syria: this will be your fate if you continue to treat injured and sick protesters.

We received the message, but refused to abandon our ethical duty to deliver healthcare to those in need.

And for this, we have been punished.

During the 10 years of conflict, hundreds of healthcare providers and medical students have been unlawfully imprisoned by the Syrian government, many never heard from again. At least 3,364 medical personnel in Syria are still detained or forcibly disappeared. The Syrian government and its allies have also killed more than 900 medical professionals and they have deliberately bombed and shelled hospitals. Since the onset of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has documented 595 attacks on health facilities in Syria. Approximately 90 percent of these attacks are attributed to the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia. Even this is likely an undercount, as it is difficult to document such cases.

The regime specifically targeted medical workers because it knew that the Syrian people would be unable to continue their fight for justice and freedom without the support of healthcare professionals. When you kill a nurse or bomb a clinic, you cut off care to an entire community.

One doctor interviewed by my colleagues at Physicians for Human Rights reported that during an interrogation, an officer told him: “You [doctors] are far more dangerous than terrorists. We kill them, you bring them back.”

The Syrian government also tortured countless healthcare providers for the sole purpose of extracting information about their colleagues.

During my detention, I, too, was tortured for information about my peers. The interrogator forced me to lie on the ground and started beating my entire body. As he hit me, he kept asking “Who are you working with? What are the names of the other doctors in your group?”

His voice, and his insistent questions about those health professionals I worked with, continue to echo in my mind to this day.

Still waiting for justice

Victims and survivors of torture in Syria received a small measure of overdue justice in February, when a German court convicted a former Syrian intelligence officer for torture and crimes against humanity. This marked the first time ever that a member of the Assad government has been tried and convicted for aiding crimes against humanity.

With Russia and China having blocked the United Nations Security Council from referring the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), some countries like Germany are using “universal jurisdiction” and other similar laws to prosecute the Syrian regime’s violations of international human rights law and war crimes in domestic courts. This approach, however, likely won’t succeed in holding high-level regime officials accountable for crimes committed under their direction. The international community needs to take a united stance to ensure those responsible for the worst atrocities of Syria’s conflict are brought to justice.

Moreover, thousands of Syrians continue to languish in the regime’s prisons to this day. All efforts to deliver justice to the Syrian people should therefore prioritise guaranteeing the release of all political detainees – including the doctors, nurses and medical students who have been targeted only because they did their jobs and provided care to those in need.

Medical workers not only provide crucial care, but also play a vital role in documenting human rights violations and war crimes. Physicians are front-line witnesses: every doctor is a lens which can observe and record the smallest details of the violence inflicted on the human body and mind. Syria’s health professionals have documented countless atrocities over this appalling decade, from the use of chemical weapons against civilians and the indiscriminate bombing of residential neighbourhoods to the systematic targeting of the country’s health infrastructure.

So far, most of these crimes remain unpunished, and the perpetrators retain much power. But we are patient. As doctors, as Syrians, we will continue to raise the voices of victims and survivors. We will continue to pressure the international community to take action and bring those responsible for the suffering of our people to justice. We provided care, we witnessed, we documented, and we will never forget.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.