Syria: In a Doctor's Words

07/26/2013
Map of Syria

For Dr. Qasem al Zein, the revolution began with a feeling of hope. “Even before the Syrian revolution, in the beginning of the Arab Spring, I was happy and wished it would reach us,” he told filmmaker Amal Saloum. “The Syrian people suffered oppression and tyranny more than any other people in the world. So I expected the people to take to the streets.”

Saloum filmed Dr. Qasem at work in the city of Al Qusair, several months before the long siege that has brought it back under the control of the government in recent weeks.

Dr. Qasem was head of the hospital at Al Qusair when the revolution began. “The first injured that came to the hospital had a bullet in his chest,” he recalls. “We were frightened and saddened by the situation. We performed a small, simple operation, but we could not keep the patient in the hospital because the secret services immediately knew about him. So we finished the operation in half an hour, and while the patient was still anesthetized, moved him over to Lebanon.”

The patient survived. “After that,” Dr. Qasem says, “I lost my fear from difficult operations like this.”

Dr. Qasem worked for two years treating victims in the city’s field hospital. After it was destroyed, he coordinated medical care in makeshift settings. In the midst of the siege, Dr. Qasem pleaded for help during a Skype call with the Associated Press: “The humanitarian and medical conditions are terrible. We are treating people in homes in an unsterilized environment. We tried to evacuate the wounded and we can’t. No one is helping us.”

On July 1 he told Radio Free Syria, “There has been an increase in the number of deaths due to the lack of basic medical supplies […]. Unfortunately we can’t obtain medical supplies because the regime considers this the most serious form of assistance and wishes death for all its opponents, and even non-opponents, including civilians […]. Our medical teams do not discriminate; we provide treatment for everyone, regardless of religion, sect, or political orientation; we have treated regime troops and even Hezbollah operatives wounded in fighting. Dealing with such atrocities on a daily basis is extremely difficult and very painful, but the crimes against humanity committed by the regime have made me more determined to work towards its downfall by focusing on the needs of the people and helping them to survive and to live.”

And that, of course, is just what doctors do: they focus on the health needs of the people and help them to live.

Dr. Qasem was forced to flee the city on June 4. He managed to survive repeated attacks during which many people in his group were killed. “They say that Al Qusair fell, but in truth all humanity fell.”

Thanks to Meenakshi Menon of GHETS, a member of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition, for bringing this deeply moving video to my attention. To learn more, see also:

•    Syria’s humanitarian blackmail is a war crime, and its victims need our help
•    Syria - Tour of Dr. Qassem Zein in New Field hospital after Fleeing Qusayr 01/07/2013
•    Video: death chases Syrian refugees fleeing Qusayr
•    Doctor in besieged Syria city of Qusair pleads for help, says 300 people need immediate evacuation
•    300 critically ill patients trapped in Syrian town of Qusayr, says doctor
•    Syrian rebels reeling from loss of Qusair search for alternative strategy
•    Syria, Al Qusair, CALL FOR HELP 9 June 2013. Doctor Qasem Alzein

Sarah Dwyer is a communications manager at IntraHealth International, which is a member of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition. The coalition promotes respect for international humanitarian and human rights laws that relate to the safety and security of health facilities, workers, ambulances and patients during periods of armed conflict or civil violence.