Sick, injured, untreated: Syrians suffer fallout of assault on medical care

By — September 16, 2013

When I was at the Syrian border in Turkey in July, I went to a public park where I heard 4,000 refugees were living. I was told it was not a UN-supported camp, that these Syrians had come over the border because they’d heard there was going to be a camp nicer than the UN one in Kilis, where most people are stuck in tents, rather than the box-like structures known as “caravans.” They thought they were going to a place that would be markedly better than the war they were leaving behind.

They were wrong.

I could not believe my eyes when I got to that park. Blue canvas tarps and corrugated box structures stretched into the horizon like a landfill dotted with humans. Sun-seared heat had congealed the smell of so many people living without toilets or showers into something indescribable.

The first refugees I met were women. They approached with children hanging off them, looking dirty, tired, and hot. One woman tried to hand me a boy who had bite marks up and down his limbs. He had scabies—a highly contagious skin condition caused by mites. The women complained of agonizing back pain caused by unattended births and no aftercare. Men limped by, injured who knows how.

A woman holds a boy with scabies at a makeshift refugee camp at the Syrian border. (Lauren Wolfe)

In May, I’d visited the Syrian-American Medical Society office in Amman. There I met a man who had one leg—the other had been chopped off at the hip while he was in prison in Syria, he said. He described how he’d been told to kiss a portrait of Assad and how he’d stepped on it instead. The amputation—with no anesthesia—was his punishment.

These are just a slim few of the serious medical conditions I saw in the diaspora caused by the Syrian conflict. More than 2 million people are living in subhuman conditions, affected by all manner of diseases caused by a lack of health care, clean water, and nourishment, not to mention combat-related injuries.

As a colleague said to me when we were in that park, “The only thing better about their lives here is that there are no bombs falling on their heads.”

If there is a lack of medical care in the refugee areas, within Syria the situation is even worse. The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published a report on September 13 that unequivocally declares that there is a literal war on hospitals and medical personnel in Syria:

“Government forces deny medical care to those from opposition-controlled and affiliated areas as a matter of policy. The policy is implemented through attacks on medical units, by endangering hospitals, targeting medical personnel, and interfering with patients receiving treatment.”

And today, more than 50 prominent doctors around the world have released a letter calling for full access for medical and humanitarian aid in Syria. Signatories include Democratic Republic of Congo’s Denis Mukwege, Harvard’s Atul Gawande, Médecins Sans Frontières’ Paul McMaster, as well as three Nobel Prize winners.

They write: “As doctors and health professionals we urgently demand that medical colleagues in Syria be allowed and supported to treat patients, save lives and alleviate suffering without the fear of attacks or reprisals.”

The situation, they say, is ever worsening, with personnel being forced to flee or killed: “According to one report, there were 5,000 physicians in Aleppo before the conflict started, and only 36 remain.”

Not only are war-related injuries going untreated within Syria, but everyday health problems are no longer able to be attended to as the country’s infrastructure falls apart. Anesthetic is scarce. Acute diarrhea is spreading. Victims of sexualized violence—of which we’ve documented many—have no outlets for help. Psychological care, which is severely in need for survivors of war both inside and beyond Syria, is basically nonexistent.

The U.S. went back and forth on whether to militarily intervene in the conflict. Now it is time to turn our attention to the assault on the basic human right to medical care. There is little baser than allowing such suffering to go untreated.

Read the whole letter—and its calls for action—here.