Discovering Inspiration in Tragedy

I’m upset – feeling guilty for leaving colleagues working in extreme circumstances in Syria. But I will document the violations. That is my contribution.” – Syrian refugee doctor

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and work with incredibly brave and talented health professionals, lawyers, and human rights activists around the world. Even in countries where human rights violations are widespread and corruption permeates every level of the government and legal system, PHR staff is consistently inspired by the courage, dedication, and brilliance of our colleagues on the ground who work tirelessly to press for transparency and accountability in their countries. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in the Syrian health professionals and lawyers whom PHR has met through our work and trainings in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Despite the personal tragedies that each of them has faced, both in Syria and as refugees in neighboring countries, they are determined to use their professional medical and legal skills not only to support immediate needs, but also to document violations to ensure accountability in an eventual post-conflict Syria.

Using the principles and methods from the Istanbul Protocol (The Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment), and other international instruments, Syrian health professionals and lawyers are documenting the physical and psychological effects of human rights violations in order to build a credible medical body of evidence to submit to the Commission of Inquiry and to use in future justice and accountability proceedings. The work undertaken by our Syrian colleagues is difficult from both a clinical and personal perspective, but these professionals are committed, resilient, and – frankly – awe-inspiring.

However, it’s not easy to put personal feelings aside indefinitely, and I have seen a clear shift in the spirits of our colleagues over the past several months. The failure of the world to intervene to stop the violence– even in the face of chemical weapons use – has sharpened their despair. Winter is coming, and they lack the simplest of supplies, like blankets for their children. Increasingly, friends and family inside Syria are being captured and killed. Our Syrian colleagues tell us that the weeks they spend at PHR trainings are an oasis where they can focus on learning with colleagues who care deeply about the Syrian people and the future of their country. They implore PHR‘s experts to continue to mentor them as they work to document the severe human rights violations accompanying this conflict, including torture and sexual and gender-based violence. We promise to do as much as we can, and will continue to urge the international community to act in order to meet the colossal needs of the Syrian people at this time.

Despite the tremendous challenges they face, our Syrian colleagues have not lost hope. Between intense discussions and case studies last month, my colleagues and I joined in the celebration of the birth of a baby to one training participant, the promise of a visa to another who will travel to the United States to take a clinical exam, one couple’s engagement, and a birthday. We were all able to more fully appreciate these special moments given the context of the intractable catastrophe of the civil war in Syria. To say that this work is an emotional journey would be a gross understatement, but the rewards of working with such an exceptional group of people are manifest.

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