Dozens of doctors have called for urgent action to halt the bombing campaign by Syrian and Russian planes that has targeted more than 20 hospitals in Syria’s northwest, putting many out of action and leaving millions of people without proper healthcare.
Coordinates for many of those hit had been shared with the regime and its Russian backers by the UN in an effort to protect civilians. The Syrian opposition was promised that war planes would avoid identified sites on bombing raids; instead they have endured more than a month of fierce attacks.
Since late April, in defiance of a truce brokered by Moscow and Ankara last year, regular airstrikes on opposition-held territory in northern Idlib province have killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more, rights groups say.
They have also destroyed key parts of the healthcare system, says a letter from doctors around the world published in the Observer.
“We are appalled by the deliberate and systematic targeting of healthcare facilities and medical staff,” they wrote. “Their [the medical staff’s] job is to save lives, they must not lose their own in the process.”
Signatories include Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year; Peter Agre, a physician who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003; Sarah Wollaston, who is a member of the British parliament and a doctor; Terence English, former president of the Royal College of Surgeons; David Nott, a surgeon who works in war zones; and Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian exile, doctor and founder of a medical charity.
They urged the UN to investigate the targeting of listed hospitals and asked the international community to put pressure on Russia and Syria to stop targeting medical centers and reverse funding cuts to surviving hospitals and clinics, which are now overwhelmed by refugees.
One paediatrician, Abdulkader Razouk, described how he and his colleagues evacuated an entire hospital including dialysis patients, mothers in labor and premature babies in incubators, as airstrikes began in their town, at least 19km from the frontline.
“After the airstrikes, but before the direct attack, we knew the hospital would be targeted,” he said in a telephone interview about the Tarmala hospital, which was eventually hit on May 10. “Only a few medical staff stayed to provide emergency response.”
The airstrike destroyed more than half the hospital and much of its equipment from beds and generators to the operating theaters, emergency services and pharmacy. Staff went back briefly to hunt through the rubble for any supplies that survived the onslaught, but the building is now abandoned.
“It would be impossible to rebuild and reopen now,” Razouk said. “The airstrikes are continuing and still targeting the hospital until this moment, even though it’s empty.”
The May bombing was not the first attack on the hospital. That came in 2015, first with the Syrian military’s wildly inaccurate barrel bombs and later by Russian missiles, which destroyed a residential building next door, but spared the clinic itself. Last year there was a direct hit on the clinic, but then it was reopened after repairs.
However, the damage after the latest attack was so severe that it is beyond repair and most of the civilians it served have fled, Razouk said.
“This was the worst attack, it has been very tough, there is no possibility whatsoever to continue work there,” he said. “Life can’t return to this area, especially under these brutal attacks. There are no people, not even animals, there’s nothing left in there, it’s like a doomed land. There is no hope to go back.”
He and other staff are opening a new temporary hospital near the Turkish border, where most of the residents of Tarmala have fled and are now living in refugee camps. It will have some of the neonatal incubators and dialysis machines evacuated before the strike, but there is a desperate need for more supplies.
About 80 medical facilities — including clinics and hospitals — have been shut because of damage in attacks or because of fear they will be targeted, said Mohamad Katoub from the Syrian American Medical Society non-governmental organization (NGO).
The huge number of refugees who have been displaced by attacks has left those that are still operating overwhelmed.
“The tactic of attacking health and other civilian infrastructure in Syria is not new, displacement is not new, these are all chronic issues, but this is the biggest displacement ever and it is much further beyond our capacity as NGOs to respond,” he said.
Turkey, which backs Idlib’s rebel groups, is already home to 3.6 million Syrians and faces the dilemma of whether to absorb any of the newly displaced people.
A group were reportedly planning a protest march to the border at the weekend.
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