Mis-treatment in Syrian hospitals
In Britain we’re used to a never-ending debate about “the future of the NHS”. The national health service is one of the shibboleths of British politics (along with support for “the finest armed services in the world” or “the need for school discipline”).
Fine. I’m a supporter of the idea of a national health service too. Last year I had a minor operation and was reminded all over again of how vulnerable you feel when you go into hospital. You’re put into a nylon gown and paper underwear and slippers. You’re unable to eat or drink. You’re wheeled about on a trolley, taken into lifts and left in pre-op rooms where all you’ve got to look at is packs of syringes and weird, slightly scary equipment. Yes, it’s nerve-racking.
All of this comes to mind reading a new report about what’s going on in hospitals in Syria right now. Given the massive death toll during the protests – 3,000 people and rising, according to the UN – you can easily imagine how swamped the country’s hospitals must be.
What’s altogether more surprising is what’s actually happening inside some of them. See the full Amnesty report for examples of how staff – surgeons, doctors and nurses – are in some cases colluding with security officials in abusing patients if they’re thought to be wounded protestors. They’re denying them medical care, half-starving them and pulling them from their beds and putting them into detention (where they’re routinely tortured).
It’s pretty hard to read about actually. Here’s one example, concerning a 30-year-old man in Banias who was shot in the abdomen when the security forces cracked down on the city in May. Along with ten other people, most of whom had gunshot wounds to their legs, he was taken to Banias’ National Hospital. Here he basically got mis-treatment, not treatment. He was shackled, hand and feet, to his bed; had no food or water for four days; received no medical care; and suffered verbal abuse and physical assaults by hospital staff. He says:
We were not treated like humans; it was like we were animals … Once I asked [the sergeant, who was guarding him] for water so he said “OK, I will give you water”, and he peed on me … sometimes as I closed my eyes to sleep he would hit me with a baton made of wire cables … Female nurses would come to the room at different times just to poke us with needles …
Where medical staff have not been complicit in abuse, they seem powerless to stop it. Their wards have been more or less taken over by soldiers and security officials. One doctor at the Homs National Hospital has said, despairingly, that security officials “can enter any room they want, and no doctor dares to say a word”. One Syrian tweeter (@Samsomhoms) alluded to the hospital crisis in a tweet last night, saying: “AlBir, the only hospital in #Homs allowed to treat injuries, has been totally surrounded by #Assad forces & can't receive more injuries”.
It’s way beyond anything our NHS debates ever throw up. This is healthcare as instrument of torture and repression. It’s the stuff of nightmares – something like the medical experiments on Malcolm McDowell’s character in A Clockwork Orange. Except worse. The Hippocratic Oath to do no harm is being shredded by the behaviour of some of these Syrian medics and goons from the security forces are turning places of healing into zones of terror.
When I went for my operation in Bart’s last year I was apprehensive. If I lived in Syria right now I’d be downright terrified of a hospital admission. It’s yet another example of how deep the crisis in Syria now is.
PS: allow me an early plug for a march and rally on Syria this Saturday in London. It starts at 12 noon at Paddington Green, and culminates with a rally outside the Syrian Embassy in Belgrave Square from 2.45-4pm. Please come along if you can.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.