In the Crosshairs, Syria’s Doctors Are Still Saving Lives—and Bearing Witness
By Donna McKay
At a hospital in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, Dr. Zakariya had just started an early morning shift when dozens of patients began streaming in. It was a scene of chaos: patients struggling to breathe, vomiting, convulsing, foaming at the mouth, and losing consciousness.
He said he knew right away that the attack was chemical. “I treated more than 50 patients,” he told researchers at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). “And I saw ten people who died.”
Before daybreak on April 4, 2017, Syrian military aircraft launched an airstrike on a residential neighborhood of Khan Sheikhoun in the country’s northern Idlib province. The deadly payload included a nerve agent—likely sarin—that injured hundreds and killed at least 80. Sarin and related nerve agents are among the deadliest chemical weapons and are illegal under international law. Even in small doses, sarin can severely disrupt the nervous system. It is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. It can kill in moments.
Dr. Zakariya (his name has been changed for his safety) and his colleagues scrambled to discard contaminated clothing and wash patients as soon as they arrived, fearful of exposing themselves to the chemicals. They administered atropine, cortisone, and oxygen, but the hospital—built into a cave to protect it from airstrikes—could not handle so many casualties. “We were underequipped and unprepared for an attack of such a scale,” one nurse told PHR. “We provided initial treatment and dispatched the injured throughout the region.”
In recent weeks, fighting in Syria’s northern Idlib province has intensified, all the more cruel because civilians from other regions have been forced to relocate there. As we’ve seen throughout more than six years of conflict, the Syrian government and its allies have placed not just civilians in the crosshairs, but the country’s entire medical infrastructure.
Days before the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, PHR confirmed two attacks on medical facilities in nearby Hama province. Immediately after the chemical strike in Khan Sheikhoun, as Dr. Zakariya and his colleagues were treating patients, their hospital came under fire as well.
In Syria, attacks on hospitals, clinics, maternity wards, pediatric centers, and field hospitals have become a horrific weapon of war. PHR has documented 454 attacks on 310 separate medical facilities, as well as the deaths of 796 medical personnel—all of which are violations of international law and constitute war crimes. Well over 90 percent of those attacks were carried out by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies.
Because of the meticulous work of researchers at PHR and other organizations, those attacks have made headlines throughout the world. But why are health professionals specifically being targeted?
First, attacking Syria’s medical personnel and infrastructure is a method of terrorizing the entire population. When you kill a health professional, you also kill the countless patients she or he could’ve treated. You make conditions for life immensely challenging. In Khan Sheikhoun, the region’s medical facilities were already woefully underresourced. Health professionals had fled. Nearby clinics had been destroyed. So when a chemical agent was dropped on the town, the chances for surviving such an attack were much reduced.
Second, targeting doctors, nurses, medics, and other health professionals is a way of silencing those who’ve been on the front lines of every human rights crisis that has unfolded in Syria. Health professionals have treated fellow Syrians who have been maimed, shot, and bombed. They’ve treated patients who have been victims of chemical weapons attacks and torture. They have heroically documented these attacks, and as observers of atrocities, their testimony can be powerful—but it can also put them at immense risk.
We defend doctors not just because they provide care; we defend them because they are some of the world’s best human rights advocates. That’s why organizations like PHR train health professionals to document evidence of torture and ill-treatment, to tend to the physical and emotional effects of conflict, and to use their voices to call for justice and accountability.
That’s the story of the dozens of Syrian doctors and nurses who Physicians for Human Rights trained to collect and report evidence of sexual violence and torture. And those Syrian colleagues are part of a global network of medical professionals who are standing up against oppression and using their skills to address human rights violations.
Syrian health professionals—and indeed health professionals around the world—put their lives on the line every day, bearing witness to atrocities in the hopes that someday justice will come. The least we can do is call for their protection, amplify their voices, and ensure that once this awful conflict ends, the evidence they have gathered can be used to hold war criminals to account. We owe them that much.
Physicians for Human Rights is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
Donna McKay is the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.