Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Syria

AUS hosted a lecture today by a doctor who recently spent time in Syria with Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The auditorium ended up being so packed that I got a seat but Jeremy had to stand in the back with a bunch of other people. Here is a summary of what the doctor, a French woman, had to say.

At this time, about two years into the conflict, estimates are that more than 60,000 Syrians have died.

There are now an estimated 2.5 million internally displaced Syrians (meaning they're refugees in their own country).

About 700,000 have become refugees outside the country, in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. (Some of my Syrian students have told me that Iraqis who fled the war in Iraq in the mid-2000s have since fled back to Iraq - not sure if they're included in the refugee numbers. Also, isn't that just about the saddest thing ever?)

In the last six months, they estimate that about 70,000 have been wounded. That's where relief organizations like Doctors Without  Borders come in.

Some of the challenges DWB/MSF faces is that hospitals and medical staff are often targeted and destroyed/killed (by which side(s), she didn't say). So Syrians are less and less able to provide their own medical support personnel, organizations, facilities, and supplies, which makes them more dependent on outside sources such as DWB/MSF. During the conflict, as field hospitals become the norm, secondary problems such as increased antibiotic resistance arise. With antibiotics available only erratically, and with administration/prescription of them left to irregular circumstances, DWB/MSF is finding that there are more and more people whose injuries they cannot treat effectively with antibiotics. This is above and beyond the more mundane awful conditions they are facing, like having their work areas bombed or having fewer and fewer actual hospitals to operate out of.

Within Syria, about two-thirds of the country are under government control. Into these areas, only government-approved relief organizations are allowed, and all that relief must be funneled through the Syrian Red Crescent. The SRC is overwhelmed and so the aid doesn't get out as quickly as it should, but there is no viable work-around at this time.

In areas (about one-third of the country) controlled by the FSA, access is more "open," but also more difficult because aid workers must cross into the country illegally (I guess that's where the "WB" part of "DWB" comes in handy). Aid workers such as those working with DWB must depend on the assets and help of local residents as well as outside allies, and they often operate within the FSA's field hospitals or they establish their own in private residences. Which, at that point, are no longer private. DWB guards its impartiality carefully, so even something as necessary, urgent, and seemingly simple as selecting a home for a makeshift hospital can be fraught with unintended implications. This complicates the process of helping people.

Security is constantly an issue for DWB. They are always balancing their desire to help and the needs of the people with the very real risks in the country. She spoke of the unpredictability of air attacks and how one place could be safe one day and deadly the next.

During the Q&A period, someone asked if they paid attention to which side's people they were treating. She said as a rule, they do not ask if someone is a rebel or a government fighter or whatever. That's not their job. However, she spoke of one difficult case where they were brought an individual who had been tortured. The person who dropped him/her (she didn't say) off was the one responsible for the torturing, and somehow it became clear that after the doctors were done fixing up the patient, the torturing would continue. She said they did not at first know what to do in such a situation, but ended up treating the person anyway because that was their duty as doctors.

Someone else asked if the people she treated had a message for the outside world, and that was the most heartbreaking part: "Help us." She said that many Syrians expected the same support as Libya received during their revolution, and obviously that hasn't happened. As more time passes, even those Syrians who are untouched by physical injury are becoming more and more traumatized by the constant bombing, street fighting, and snipers.

It was a great talk, even if it left me feeling pretty awful. Still, I'm glad to get the chance to hear accounts like this so I can understand the situation better - and know that there are people doing a lot to help ease the suffering in Syria.


Crys said...

Doctors without borders is pretty intense. Dr. J and I always wanted to do medical mission, I think to sort of make up for the fact that I didn't do the peace core when I wanted to, or maybe it is just something I'd always have wanted to do, but when I was a kid I use to follow some of the doctors without borders stuff and think it was perfect. Then I learned more about it and I think that while I'm glad there are people willing to go to such lengths I am not one of them. They only are in areas of extreme political unrest, so the problems they are facing in Syria are very typical of the problems they always face. As a result many of the people who join their group could be best described as adrenaline junkies. They can be killed at any time because at any time either side could take offense to them severing the other side. They watch patients die all the time of things that would be easily treatable, even in our just basic insta care clinics because they often are dealing with not only a lack of medical supplies but also a lack of electricity and a lack of clean water. Anyway it sort of a little above my own personal bravery level. I decided after watching a documentary about DWB that something else was probably more my style :) Syria makes me sad. Wish there was something we could do.

Crys said...

And by ME I mean Me personally, not the general me of the United States because I already disapprove of the way they are dealing with the situation.

Bridget said...

I was wondering if you'd ever thought of DWB (and sure you had). It does seem pretty extreme. I hope you can do a medical mission someday.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Thanks for the "inside information" on conditions in Syria and how one organization is providing assistance. We read little of the humanitarian crisis in Syria; coverage mostly concerns the military aspect. I'm grateful there are folks willing to put themselves in harm's way for the benefit of the down-trodden.

I wondered if the Iraqis had all gone home by now as conditions are better in Baghdad these days. I also ask how Jordan can continue to be the absorber of the region's refugees--Palestinian, Iraqi, now Syrian.

Here's a couple of links to months-old articles about the assistance provided to refugees by LDS Humanitarian (one of several trying to help):



Crys said...

Yeah I was totally into it as a kid. But mainly that's because I saw any sort of out of country stuff as doctors without borders and didn't realize that they really were a specific group and that because of their mandate there is sort of that high risk environment, and that because of that they really attract a more booze, sex, and maybe even a little recreational drugs group. I mean obviously not everyone is like that but it is definitely more intense then me. We are super into overseas work though...but something like the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital is more my style. Man I really do love Catherine Hamlin, my type of hero!

Liz Johnson said...

That's awful. I don't even know what to say beyond that.

Sarah said...

It IS awful. I wish the President would read this entry.

Timothy Browning said...

The part about the torture has stuck with me all day. Knowing what to do about the situation just seems so impossible to even begin to wrap my head around.

Bridget said...

I know, right? It's stuck with me, too. As she spoke about it, you could tell it was a really hard decision for the team of doctors. On the one hand, they did not want to enable the torturing of others by keeping subjects alive. On the other hand, could they really refuse to treat someone in need? She did say that after they treated this person, they told the (presumed) torturer that they did not want to see them again.

Cait said...

I was reading on Baghdad Burning (Iraqi woman blog) about how when they left Iraq, Damascus seemed like a paradise.

"Syria is a beautiful country- at least I think it is. I say “I think” because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war- bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets seemingly always full of shoppers…"

What a difference a few years can make.


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