Syria's Health Crisis Spirals as Doctors Flee

Map of Syria

It was the third week of an uprising in Syria that would eventually evolve into a brutal civil war and already the wounded were showing up at the hospital in the Damascus suburb where 29-year-old Ahmed was doing rotations during his medical residency. Ahmed, who asked that only one part of his name be published because he is afraid of repercussions from Syria’s security agencies, had only just started examining a young man with bruises and a deep puncture wound on his right side when two armed security officials burst into the examining room barking questions. Who was the patient, they wanted to know, and how did he get his injuries? When it emerged that the patient had been at a protest that afternoon against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad the officials hauled the young man outside. Ahmed could do nothing. “I was so angry at myself,” he recalls, as he chain-smokes in a café in Lebanon nearly three years later. “Why didn’t I protect him? I was terrified. I was a coward.”

That scene in Ahmed’s examining room would play out hundreds of more times across Syria as regime thugs hunted hospitals for wounded protestors, and then later, for rebels fighting against Assad’s government. When the rebel forces in Douma, the suburb where Ahmed’s hospital is located, grew in number and strength they then took to roaming the hospital corridors, seeking to finish off any regime supporters who had been injured in the vicious street fighting. In July 2012, the Syrian government passed an anti-terrorism law that effectively made it a crime to provide medical care to anyone suspected of supporting the rebels. Ahmed was caught between the Hippocratic oath — a doctor’s promise to treat every patient — and the growing pressure to take sides. “The regime said ‘Why are you helping the Free Army?’ and the Free Army said ‘Why are you helping the regime?’” Once a supporter of the revolution, Ahmed has come to the conclusion that neither side will be able to save Syria. So he is giving up, abandoning his “patient”— Syria— once again, he says with a wry smile. Instead, he has opted for a life in the United States; relatives already there are helping him to emigrate. “Yes, maybe I feel guilty,” he admits. “Maybe I am a coward for leaving Syria. But as a doctor it is impossible to work there. I have to live, I have to eat.”

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