At the end of July, Physicians for Human Rights, a group of health care professionals who have been documenting abuses in conflict areas for nearly three decades, went to Turkey to hear the stories of Syrian doctors who are seeing a once-advanced medical system in the Syrian city of Aleppo being systematically destroyed in unrelenting bombardment. These doctors and other health care staff continue to risk their lives by leaving their families in Turkey and crossing back into Syria periodically to provide medical care. That is, those who survive.
In a just-published report, “Aleppo Abandoned: A Case Study on Health Care in Syria,” the human-rights group catalogued the fearsome tally: 687 medical personnel killed and 329 medical facilities attacked as the Syrian civil war nears a five-year mark. The report says that the Syrian government has been responsible for most of the devastating attacks, actions that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. More than two-thirds of the hospitals in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous — and fiercely fought over — city no longer function and about 95 percent of doctors have fled, been detained or killed, according to the report.
“Each attack, whether the bombing of a hospital or the detention and torture of a doctor for providing health care, is a war crime,” Physicians for Human Rights asserts. “Given the systematic nature of these attacks by Syrian government forces, these violations constitute crimes against humanity. The Syrian government’s ongoing assault on health care is one of the most egregious the world has ever seen.”
The survey, a detailed study of both the abuses and the degraded health system that remains, bereft of sophisticated medical equipment as well as basic commodities like clean water, was conducted with local medical organizations and other sources of documentation.
“Aleppo Abandoned” has an epilogue, added right before the report’s release.
“On September 30, Russian forces launched airstrikes in Syria allegedly against IS, marking the country’s first direct engagement in hostilities,” the report said. “The Russian government appears to be following President Assad’s lead in labeling all opposition groups as terrorists and attacking them and their civilian supporters. The Russian military has also followed in the Syrian military’s footsteps by attacking the health care system.” Physicians for Human Rights, or PHR, describes these attacks as an “explicit violation” of international humanitarian law.
“Through the end of October, PHR has documented 10 attacks on medical facilities by Russian airstrikes in Syria,” the appendage said. The Russian government has denied the charges, and it remains to be seen whether Russian tactics will change with the widening international war against the Islamic State.
“While PHR has not documented any Russian airstrikes on medical facilities inside Aleppo city through October 31, PHR has documented five attacks on facilities in the city’s suburbs and southern countryside,” the report said. “Four of these medical facilities were forced to close following the attacks. These airstrikes were launched alongside a ground offensive by the Syrian government.”
Another chapter has now been added to the current tragic story of attacks on hospitals and other medical faculties, compounding the brutalities of war in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan, where an American airstrike in October, called in, US officials say, by Afghan forces battling militants in Kunduz, left at least 30 people dead in a field hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.
At least one other hospital belonging to the same organization was destroyed in Yemen. Medical centers as well as schools and other public service sites have also been caught up in a war waged by militants in Nigeria. The potentially large numbers of allegations of war crimes raise questions about whether it will ever be feasible to bring such cases to trial or justice to the survivors.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.