At the Oscars, a Spotlight on Health Care in the Midst of Violence

02/28/2014
Map of Yemen

Flashback to February 2011. Arab Spring. In Sana’a, Yemen, protesters peacefully assemble in a makeshift tent city, calling for an end to 33 years of the president’s autocratic rule. They are male and female, young and old, urban and rural. Their numbers grow to tens of thousands.

On March 18 of that year, the protesters proclaim the day to be Friday of Dignity (Karama in Arabic). Tensions are high. Over the past few days, armed men said to be loyal to the president have built walls to contain the protesters in what had been dubbed “Change Square.” On the Friday of Dignity, as the protesters finish a prayer, masked gunmen set fire to the main wall and begin shooting into the trapped crowd.

Two young men with video cameras are among the many who document the attack. Their footage shows the violence unfolding quickly and brutally. In a makeshift clinic, health workers and other brave souls risk their lives to keep the wounded alive under terrible circumstances.

“The tragedy of that day changed Yemen’s history forever,” says an eyewitness in Sara Ishaq’s Oscar-nominated documentary short, Karama Has No Walls. The attack on March 18 lasted three hours, leaving over 45 dead and hundreds wounded.

This film is a powerful testament to the bravery of all those who seek change peacefully and of those who risk their lives to treat people in the midst of violence.

As we know all too well, around the world the principle of medical neutrality is often brazenly ignored. Health workers are targeted, hospitals are bombed, patients are shot. Just a few very recent examples:

  • In Syria, at least 398 health workers have been killed since the war began (as of January 24). This includes 149 doctors, 82 nurses, 80 medics, and 40 pharmacists. Hospitals, field clinics, and ambulances have been targeted for destruction. On February 23, a field hospital in Atmeh was attacked.
  • In Ukraine, health workers were targeted as they provided emergency care to protesters this month. An eyewitness told The Lancet that “the police threw grenades into a field hospital.” A volunteer physician said, “The targeting by police was both shocking and disappointing as we had already appealed to them at the start of the protests not to hurt medics.… Now we are scared and work in fear for our lives.”
  • In South Sudan, MSF discovered at least 14 dead bodies at the Malakal Teaching Hospital on February 22 following an attack. “Rather than safe havens for treatment, hospitals are now targets of attack and brutality,” said Raphael Gorgeu, MSF head of mission.

Written reports of these atrocities affect me deeply, but seeing and hearing the horror makes a far more powerful impact. I applaud all the filmmakers, both amateur and professional, working to document such scenes and help the world really feel and understand what’s going on.

And the Oscar goes to…?
I hope many people will have a chance to watch and spread the word about Karama Has No Walls. But the events of March 18, 2011, are joined by so many other global episodes when respect for human life is abandoned and health professionals who care for the wounded are flagrantly targeted. It’s a heartbreaking part of our world that demands our collective action.

IntraHealth International is a member of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, whose mission is to promote the security of health workers and services threatened by war or civil unrest. The coalition monitors attacks on and threats to civilian health; strengthens universal norms of respect for the right to health; demands accountability for perpetrators; and empowers providers and civil society groups to be champions for their right to health. Learn more, and consider joining us.