I’m a doctor who’s seen the world’s worst humanitarian crises – but the suffering I’ve seen in Syria is unprecedented

Zaher Sahloul
AFP via Getty

I stood in the muddy field of one of the 1,150 camps for the internally displaced people in Idlib. It was raining and the mud was a couple of feet deep. It’s very cold here in January, but children were walking in light shoes and slippers.

Just three weeks before my medical mission, there was another large displacement of Syrian civilians. I wondered how would people live inside these tents in the blistering weather. Ali, a 10-year-old boy, told me he dreams of living in a warm house once again, that prospect remains a distant possibility.

After nine years of suffering, it looks as if the international community and the United Nations have left the Syrian people on their own. Even proper tents to give some warmth, usually provided by UNHCR, were not available when I was there.

In the last month, 359,000 civilians, including 165,000 children, have been displaced and more than 60 hospitals have been bombed since May 2019.

Idlib, which is land-locked, has around 4 million civilians and over 1,150 refugee camps for the displaced. Half of them have had to flee other regions in Syria. Turkey, which is already hosting 3.9 million refugees, has sealed the border. There is no place to flee the bombing and violence. Idlib has been transformed into something like a large concentration camp.

I travelled from Chicago to Idlib to stand in solidarity with the people and convey the support of the American public. I have been in many disaster zones with my organization MedGlobal. We provide free medical care to the displaced and the refugees. I have participated in medical missions from Yemen, Colombia, Gaza, Greece, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. What is happening in Idlib is, by far, the worst. And still the international humanitarian law that guarantees the protection of civilians, hospitals and children is being violated every day – unfortunately by a member of the UNSC. This should not be allowed to be the new normal, even in war situations.

The children of Idlib are suffering. They are being targeted by the Russian and Syrian regime bombs and missiles. In a recent report on the impact of the crisis in Idlib on children, Save the Children highlighted very alarming statistics: On average, a Syrian child has been killed by Russian/Syrian bombings every day over the past year. In one month (July 2019 specifically), more children were killed in the whole of 2018.

The humanitarian situation is overwhelming to local Syrian NGOs, particularly since the absence of UN agencies during a pause in its operation to provide aid to civilians. Cross-border aid may well have resumed as of 10 January 2020, but the Security Council’s reduction of the number of access points it provides has created issues. From my perspective, it still doesn’t look like the UN has a workable plan. There should have been accessible emergency fund that could have been deployed in the event of issues like these. Instead, UN officials have largely failed to meet with the majority of the very people they are supposed to protect and provide humanitarian assistance to.

As part of global solidarity with the children of Idlib, MedGlobal, in collaboration with a group of humanitarian several organisations, have stood by the 1.2 million Syrian civilians displaced in Idlib to highlight the catastrophic conditions. We’ve also called on Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, to visit the 359,000 newly displaced. So far, we’ve heard nothing.

The UN and Guterres have been slow in their response to the catastrophic situation. Voicing “deep concerns” in his UN office in NYC is not enough – he should visit Idlib like he has visited other disaster areas. It is his duty. What is happening in Syria, in Idlib, is a stain on the UN record and an utter failure of their rigid and outdated system.

Dr. Loubna Saad, a local paediatrician who was displaced with her family from Maarat al-Numan three weeks ago, described the horrifying conditions of evacuating her own city. Most people live in temporary shelters where basic necessities are not available. Diesel fuel for heating is scarce and expensive. Families are burning plastic bags and all kinds of appliances to warm their families. “Children are traumatized,” Dr. Loubna said.

“I have treated children with severe malnutrition. [I am] Nursing women who can't nurse their children due to psychological trauma and lack of good nutrition. It will be very difficult [for] the displaced children to survive the harsh winter.”

In spite of this, people are very resilient. They are dealing with the catastrophe the best way they know how to. Methods of survival include using compressed olive pits and nut shells to heat their stoves instead of diesel fuel, or even using plastic bags, old shoes and slippers. As a doctor, it’s worrying – I know the long term consequences of inhaling plastic fumes.

In a bid to assess the medical situation recently, I went on a visit to the Bab Alhawa hospital, the largest in Idlib, and met with its administration and medical staff. It is reasonably protected as it is close to the Turkish border, with many of the surgeries confined specifically to the hospital because of its relative safety. It serves 240,000 surgical and medical patients a year, but that’s not to say it doesn’t need resources and protection.

Doctors and nurses are targeted in Syria if they work in non-government controlled areas. Around 589 hospitals have been bombed since 2016, and at least 914 medical workers have been killed according to Physicians for Human Rights. These heroes are harassed, targeted and forgotten but they deserve our support, respect, and solidarity, staring with world leaders.

Donald Trump should observe UNSC resolution 2254, make Syria a priority, apply all diplomatic pressure to end the crisis once and for all and increase humanitarian assistance to Syrian children through local Syrian NGOs. Syrian children have suffered enough. Responsible countries should increase humanitarian assistance to these displaced people and apply all diplomatic pressure on Russia to stop the bombing in Idlib.

I asked the children of a camp I visited on the side of the highway from Idlib city to Turkey what they dream to be in the future. Some wanted to be engineers, some teachers and some wanted even wanted to be president. But more than half of the children in the camp wanted to be doctors. I hope that the international community gives them the chance to be a source of healing to the whole region, instead of experiencing yet more hopelessness.

Zaher Sahloul is a US-based doctor and president of MedGlobal

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