Russia's Entry into Syria Worsens Killings of Medical Workers on War's Front Lines

October 30, 2015



Widney Brown

director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights.

Majed Aboali

Syrian health worker from East Ghouta and coordinator for United Medical Office of East Ghouta. He fled Syria last year and now lives in Turkey. He is using a pseudonym to protect his safety.

As global talks on Syria take place in Vienna, we look at the dangers to medical workers on the front lines of the world’s deadliest conflict. Nearly 700 medical personnel have been killed in Syria since the war erupted in March 2011. The group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) says there have been more than 300 attacks on health facilities—with the Syrian regime responsible 90 percent of the time. According to Doctors Without Borders, airstrikes in Syria have killed at least 35 patients and medical staff since an escalation in bombings late last month. Russian airstrikes have damaged six Syrian health facilities this month, killing at least four civilians and wounding six medical staffers. We are joined by PHR’s Widney Brown and a Syrian doctor who fled his country under the cover of night.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen have been devastating for civilians, but recent attacks laid bare the dangers to medical personnel, as well. The latest figures from Doctors Without Borders say the U.S. airstrike on its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killed 30 people—13 workers, 10 patients and seven others who remain unidentified. Another 27 staffers were injured along with an unknown number of patients and caretakers. The bombing left the 94-bed trauma center in ruins and hundreds of thousands of Afghans without a critical surgical facility. Doctors Without Borders has accused the United States of a war crime and demanded an independent international probe.

Just three weeks later, another Doctors Without Borders hospital was destroyed in Yemen, this time by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition that has waged war there since March. Doctors Without Borders says hospital staff and patients managed to escape as the facility was hit multiple times over a two-hour period Monday night. The hospital’s roof was marked with the Doctors Without Borders logo, and GPS coordinates had been shared with the Saudi-led coalition multiple times. Doctors Without Borders says the attack will leave 200,000 people without access to medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Syria, the world’s deadliest conflict, has also been the deadliest for medical workers. Nearly 700 medical personnel have been killed since the war erupted in March of 2011. The group Physicians for Human Rights says there have been more than 300 attacks on health facilities, with the Syrian regime responsible 90 percent of the time. According to Doctors Without Borders, airstrikes in Syria have killed at least 35 patients and medical staff since an escalation in bombings late last month. Twelve Syrian hospitals were targeted, six were forced to close. The group Physicians for Human Rights says Russian airstrikes have damaged six Syrian health facilities this month, killing at least four civilians and wounding six medical staffers.

The violence against health workers in Syria was the focus Thursday of a major demonstration in New York City. Hundreds of medical professionals and volunteers donned white coats and took part in a die-in near the United Nations. They lay on the ground to represent the nearly 700 colleagues who have lost their lives.

DR. DEANE MARCHBEIN: Healthcare personnel, hospitals, ambulances are being targeted, which means that whole communities don’t have access to care. Our Syrian colleagues, many of them are like the only remaining medical providers in communities of tens of thousands, a hundred thousands. They are taking great personal risk to provide access to healthcare for their community. We stand in solidarity. I’ve worked in Syria. I’ve worked in support of Syria. And the Syrian people are asking, "Has the world forgotten about us? Do they know what’s happening? Do they know that people—that snipers are targeting doctors or nurses?" This is horrible. It’s unacceptable.

DR. CONRAD FISCHER: Various people and various groups are specifically targeting hospitals, because they know that if they wipe out the first responders and the doctors, all the injured will die. If you injure—one of the things people don’t know about an explosive device is that the actual number of people injured, for each person killed, is actually 20 to one. So when you hear on the news that one person died, you have to multiply it by 20. You get rid of the doctors, then those 20 people don’t make it.

AMY GOODMAN: Thursday’s protest came on the eve of international talks on the Syria crisis in Vienna, Austria. Iran, a key Assad regime ally, is taking part for the first time after the U.S. stopped objecting to its involvement.

We’re joined now by two guests. Widney Brown is with us. She is director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, which helped organize Thursday’s die-in at the U.N. to protest the killings of medical professionals in Syria. And we’re joined by a Syrian doctor who’s using the pseudonym Majed Aboali to protect his identity and safety. He’s a Syrian health worker from East Ghouta and coordinator for the United Medical Office of East Ghouta. He fled Syria last year, now lives in Turkey.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Talk about the die-in and what’s happening in Syria. We’ll also talk about the bombings of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan and Yemen.

WIDNEY BROWN: Well, the attacks on hospitals and the killing of medical workers in Syria is at a scale that we simply have never seen before. And it’s undermining a really long-established norm, a 150-year norm, that says hospitals and medical providers must be protected in conflict, not targeted. So what’s happening in Syria is devastating both to the healthcare infrastructure and the ability to help people who need healthcare services, either because they’re victims in the bombing themselves or for other medical needs. And at this point, as you said, 90 percent of the attacks on hospitals, we’ve been able to confirm, are by the Syrian government. And about 95 percent of the killing of doctors and other medical professionals, again, is by the Syrian government.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the protest was at the United Nations. What can the United Nations do in this conflict?

WIDNEY BROWN: Well, the U.N. Security Council is charged with maintaining international peace and security. And for nearly five years, it’s been completely paralyzed with regard to the conflict in Syria. Now, they did pass a resolution where they explicitly said the Syrian government and all other parties to the conflict must stop the attacks on hospitals, schools and attacks on civilians. And it said in that resolution, if there’s evidence of noncompliance, they will take further action. That was two years ago. I’m not sure what more evidence they need, but we need stronger actions by the U.N. Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Majed Aboali, tell us your story. You come from Ghouta?

DR. MAJED ABOALI: Yeah, I came from eastern Ghouta, which is just 10 kilometers from the great capital Damascus. It’s a besieged area since November 2012, where there is no electricity. After just five days, we will celebrate the third anniversary of being without electricity in this area. There is no pure water. There is no food. It’s completely besieged. We are struggling just to get our food.

I worked there—I was born there, actually, and I worked there 'til May 2014, where I could be no more, because I have family, and they have the right to live. And my decisions to stay and to help people, supporting medical assistance, supporting heath assistance and field hospitals, to provide health services for people and to treat the injuries, maybe would affect my family. And I just want my kids to be safe. So I decided that my decisions would affect my son and his future. He has a right to have a safe school, at least. He has a right to have a good health system. So I fled out with my family in May 2014. I'm working now now in Gaziantep.


DR. MAJED ABOALI: In Turkey, Gaziantep. It’s a city in the south that most of the Syrians will prefer to live in, because—it’s just not because it’s near to the Syrian borders. You can feel that you are very close, that you’re home, and you can at least be in contact with people there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you were in Syria, you and your colleagues were forced to build, in essence, an underground health system?

DR. MAJED ABOALI: Yeah, actually, hospitals were targeted from the first day of the revolutions. And doctors were shot to death. Doctors were tortured to death in the prisons of the regime. So, actually, in my area, which is about—now it’s about 500,000 people living there, and it’s besieged, and before it was more than 1 million. When the regime pulled the forces on the ground outside of this area and began his strategy of putting it in siege, he stopped all the services inside this area. So, before—that happened November 2012. Before, we were treating the injuries, because they were not allowed to be treated in the hospitals of neither the public hospital or the private hospitals. They would be arrested with the doctors who are treating them. So we were just treating them away from the regime’s security. Now we have to provide all health services for the people who are living in this area. So you have to provide primary healthcare, dialysis unit, cardiologists have to work—all kind of health services. It’s too dangerous to work over the ground, so we began to use basements and to dig under the ground to build our hospital. It’s not healthy to have a hospital under the ground. It’s not—it’s a shame on this world that a doctor have to work under the ground just to be safe.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to the Ghouta attack in 2013—Ghouta, where you come from. Hundreds of Syrian civilians died in a chemical attack in Ghouta. The incident nearly caused the United States to launch military strikes in Syria after the Obama administration accused forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, of carrying out the attack. This is President Obama speaking on PBS days after the attack.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When you start talking about chemical weapons, in a country that has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world, where, over time, their control over chemical weapons may erode, where they’re allied to known terrorist organizations that in the past have targeted the United States, then there is a prospect, a possibility, in which chemical weapons, that can have devastating effects, could be directed at us. And we want to make sure that that does not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia and the U.S. eventually reached a deal to have Syria destroy its chemical stockpiles. You were there when the chemical attack took place. Can you describe what you saw two years ago?

DR. MAJED ABOALI: Well, I think, as we are in New York, New Yorkers can understand a lot what I’m talking about, because it’s too similar to 9/11. You are at your work. We were at home. Me, for myself, I was at home. All the people were sleeping, most of the eastern Ghouta. Doctors were on shift, as usual. We’re used for receiving like bombs and shelling and airstrikes, but suddenly it was like a massacre. It was not the first chemical attack, but we used to receive 15 to 20 patients that were affected by a chemical attack. Suddenly hundreds of people began to came to the hospitals. They were sleeping—kids, women. Kids came with their sleeping suits. I think New Yorkers can understand that very much. It was like you can do nothing for this. Doctors stand hopeless and helpless in that night. It’s too hard to take the decisions—who will you treat before, because he have most chance to live, and who we have to delay, because you have not enough staff, you have not enough equipment, you not enough medical supplies. I think even a civilized city, which have a good equipment, which have a good capacity, will not be able to deal with such a disaster.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were the symptoms as the patients came in? How many ended up dying, that you could tell?

DR. MAJED ABOALI: Well, actually, the symptoms are the same, but the degree of the symptoms were different from a patient to another. That depends upon how much he was closer to the center of the attacks. Well, the lack of breathing was the main thing that we had to deal with. Actually, experts considered it as a sarin attack. We, as medical—

AMY GOODMAN: Sarin gas?

DR. MAJED ABOALI: Yes, sarin gas. We, as medical staff, all our experience is to describe the symptoms, so that we described the symptoms exactly for the experts, for the United Nations mission which entered the eastern Ghouta. And it was there already. The mission was in Damascus when the chemical attack happened. And the experts considered it as a sarin attack.

Actually, it’s not a matter if it was sarin or it was chlorine or what is the weapon that the regime used. It was mentioned that the weapons, the chemical weapons, of the regime was destroyed, but a lot of Syrians in the same area were killed, more than the people who were killed in that night. After one year and the first anniversary of the chemical attack, we, as a medical office there, looked at our statistics. How many people were killed by airstrikes? They were double from the people who were killed by the chemical attack. How many people were killed by siege, from starvation and from lack of medical supplies? Many of them were killed, more than the number who were killed that night. Actually, what happened that night is still going 'til now, doctors standing hopeless today in the same eastern Ghouta. Today, just four hours ago, an airstrike targeted a market, and 47 people died in the same area. But no one care, because it's not a chemical attack.

AMY GOODMAN: You protested, Widney Brown, outside of the United Nations. What are you calling on the U.N. and the U.S. to do?

WIDNEY BROWN: Well, the U.N. and—

AMY GOODMAN: And this is about attacks on hospitals in Syria.


AMY GOODMAN: Increasing attacks, Doctors Without Borders are saying, by Russian attacks on hospitals?

WIDNEY BROWN: Yes, we’re also documenting attacks on hospitals by Russian airplanes. We’ve confirmed several. MSF, as you know, has announced that they’ve had 12 attacks just in October. The Russians started bombing, I think, the last day in September. So, obviously, we’ve got Russians using what they say is smart bombs in attacking hospitals. So now doctors are trying to survive both Syrian air force barrel bombs and guided missiles from the Russians.

What we’re calling on the U.N. to do is—the U.N. has imposed no sanctions against Syria since the start of this war. The only existing sanctions against Syria are actually from the assassination of Hariri in Lebanon. So they’ve taken none of the measures that they can take to try to address the violations that are happening here. So we’re calling on them to take action. They themselves envisioned it in the resolution that they did pass calling for a halt to the attacks on hospitals, the killings of doctors, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, we’re going to ask about the attack on the bomb—on the hospital in Yemen, as well as the U.S. attack on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan that left at least 30 people dead. We’re talking to Widney Brown, who is the head of Physicians for Human Rights here in the United States, director of programs, and Dr. Majed Aboali—not his actual name. He’s a dentist, a Syrian health worker, from East Ghouta, coordinator for United Medical Office of East Ghouta. fled Syria last year, now lives in Turkey. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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