Doctors have always been my heroes, but in war zones they are elevated to the status of superheroes.
Wherever I have worked, my first stop has always been a hospital. First, because you can ascertain the level of damage that has been inflicted on the population, both civilian and combatant, by talking to hospital staff and gathering testimonies from patients. But also, because the war doctors I have known have always exuded honesty and integrity.
While all of them expressed disgust at the level of inhumanity man wreaks upon his fellow man, most were too busy saving lives to express their political views. They just kept their heads down and worked, so you knew you would get a fair description of what was happening.
Thinking back over three decades working in war zones, I remember the bravest people I have met in my life: the emergency room doctors in Sarajevo who worked round the clock without electricity, sometimes operating by candlelight; those in Sierra Leone, who operated on babies and children, upon whom the Revolutionary United Front militia had performed amputations as a form or torture; doctors working in a battlefield hospital in Chechnya after Russian forces levelled Grozny, administering surgery without anesthetic, their feet sticking in pools of blood.
I always felt helpless in war zones, because I was not a doctor. Journalists gather information, but we can’t save lives.
A few weeks ago, a group of doctors in north-west Syria decided to stop sharing their co-ordinates with the UN, a practice originally designed to protect them from attack. Their fear was that Russia – which bombs hospitals with its ally, Bashar Al Assad – would use this information to kill them.
In the month of May alone, more than 20 hospitals have been bombed in the region. Physicians for Human Rights has documented 566 attacks on about 350 Syrian health facilities since the war began in 2011, killing more than 890 medical staff.
Since the 5th century, doctors have taken the Hippocratic Oath, a solemn covenant of medical neutrality and decency. “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.”
But the brutality of war tends to disregard such pledges – the Geneva Conventions, international and humanitarian law, or the oaths of doctors.
Nowhere is the Hippocratic Oath more meaningless than in Syria, where roughly half a million people have died, more than 6 million been internally displaced and 9 million made refugees.
But there is also a horrible twist: the man responsible for the slaughter there is a doctor who studied at Damascus University and later trained in London. Nurses recall him soothing patients who were afraid of anesthetic. He married a woman whose father was a respected cardiologist in the UK.
That same man, Bashar Al Assad, is now engaged in a ruthless and systematic campaign to bomb hospitals and kill doctors, particularly in Idlib, where the final bloody push to end the war in Syria is taking place.
What is the rationale behind killing doctors and bombing the infirm? Assad and his supporters will say that these people are “terrorists.”
In every hospital I have visited in Syria, I never saw terrorists. I only saw the sick and wounded.
Once, in Aleppo, I saw an infant die from an entirely treatable respiratory illness. The baby should have lived. But the parents could not make their way to the hospital because the bombing was so fierce. I can remember the look of resignation as the young doctor placed a sheet over the face of the dead child. I can also remember the sorrow on the mother’s face.
Even war has rules – but in Syria, there are none. It is not the only country that suffers such horrors, but they are magnified there by the length and scale of the war.
The concept of “first do no harm” is enshrined in nearly every world religion and in Chinese, Indian, Jewish, Islamic and Western medicine. The first Geneva Convention was written in response to the horror of the Battle of Solferino in 1859. This led to the establishment of the Red Cross, which codifies the protection of medical personnel, soldiers and civilians.
But in Syria, the international community gave up long ago. The latest assault on Idlib has displaced thousands and will lead to another humanitarian catastrophe.
In a secret basement hospital somewhere in that forsaken country, Dr Omar Ibrahim, an Egyptian neurosurgeon, gets up day after day and performs surgeries between airstrikes. He receives about 50 patients a day. He gets to sleep at 4 am and wakes at 8 or 9 am. The misery he sees is unbearable – but the worst, he says, is seeing children come in, gasping and dying.
Dr Rola Hallam, a British-Syrian anesthesiologist travels to Syria to help build hospitals in secret locations. Her last trip left her devastated. “What goes through their minds when they decide to bomb a hospital?” she said. “I think war is so blinding. The only way that any of us can kill is to totally dehumanise each other… when you make someone not worthy of life, of breath.”
In Idlib today, the bombing continues. And Dr Omar is back at work.
Janine di Giovanni is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute. She is the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. Follow her on Twitter @janinedigi