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.