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March 5, 2012 7:13 pm
As a small team of men on Monday shuttled boxes into a new medical centre for the wounded of Syria’s uprising, a surgeon named Adnan suddenly broke off his account of why he had come from Europe to help the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
When he spoke again, his voice cracked and he cried as he spoke of Hamza al-Khatib, the 13-year-old boy allegedly tortured to death in April by Assad loyalists.
“If it was my son, what would I do?” asked Adnan, who asked only to be identified by his first name. he had flown in from France with 60kg of precious medical supplies, including equipment for dealing with long bone fractures. “These images are unspeakable. Militias are killing people in hospitals: it is indefensible.”
Adnan’s distress, felt strongly even in the safety of southern Turkey, shows how close Syria’s anti-
regime doctors are to the emotional and physical core of a revolt in which saving people has become a dangerous political act.
Marie-Pierre Allié, president of Médecins Sans Frontières France, the international medical relief organisation, said her team’s discussions with doctors and patients from Syria suggested the regime now saw medical care as a “tool for repression”.
“We really came to the conclusion that there was quite an organised approach to use the hospitals as a place where you can look for opponents,” she said. “At the same time, the doctors themselves are suspected because they are taking care of these types of patients.”
In Syria, doctors opposed to Mr Assad have found alternative ways to help the thousands injured during a revolt estimated to have killed more than 7,500.
Housed in a basement in Reyhanli, not far from Turkey’s border with northern Syria, the medical supply centre Adnan is helping is so new that a carpenter is still busy building shelves.
Dr Monzer Yazji, Texas-based specialist in internal medicine, was superintending the jumble of goods that had arrived there, ranging from urine drainage bags to orthopaedic walking frames and two autoclaves for sterilising surgical instruments.
He described how the medicines and equipment would fill field hospitals running all the way to Homs, where a month-long bombardment by government forces is estimated to have left hundreds dead and many times that number injured. “It [the system] is like an artery,” the doctor said. “And this is the oxygen that goes through the artery,” he added, with a nod towards the boxes.
Dr Yazji said the operation was funded by networks of Syrian doctors in the US, Europe and elsewhere, with fundraising events and personal salary donations raising more than €1.5m since January. But it still faced huge problems with shortages and persecution: Dr Yazji said 20 doctors with whom he was working disappeared last month and were still unaccounted for.
Doctors have faced state trouble elsewhere during the Arab uprising. Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi had medics arrested during the civil war that led to his downfall last year, while Bahrain doctors were
jailed for treating protesters.
Mr Assad’s qualifications as an ophthalmologist lend a ghastly irony to his actions in the eyes of the medical professional opposed to him. As a doctor, he is supposed to be bound morally by the Hippocratic oath which – in one well-known modern version – points to his “special obligations to all ... fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm”.
For the doctors who combine their commitment to their profession with an equal drive to unseat Mr Assad, the regime’s behaviour has made a mockery of what they do. As Dr Yazji remarked: “It is good anywhere to save somebody’s life – but not in Syria.”
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