If you were walking along First Avenue in New York city yesterday morning, you may have noticed something peculiar outside the United Nations (UN): three large, black trucks, each with a jumbo screen displaying the words of a simple phrase: “Stop / Bombing / Hospitals.”
Gathered nearby was a group of doctors and clinicians in white coats, joining colleagues at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Action for Sama, the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), the Syria Campaign, and MedGlobal to raise the alarm on the criminal targeting of hospitals in Syria throughout the nine-year conflict.
Even that morning, news of renewed attacks against health facilities in northwest Syria made the headlines: this time, reporting the killing of 10 civilians, and putting out of service an entire hospital used by tens of thousands in Idlib province. Tragically, yesterday’s attack was only the latest in a consistent pattern of strikes conducted by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies which have devastated the provision of health care to communities and entire cities in Syria.
Our calls yesterday for a halt to assaults on Syria’s health care and civilians occurred at a critical time: the UN is in the midst of an internal investigation into attacks on UN-supported facilities in Idlib that occurred in blatant disregard of a UN-brokered protection mechanism. These sites are legally protected under international humanitarian law; further, they had shared their geographical coordinates with warring factions via the UN’s “deconfliction” mechanism in an effort to avoid being struck. Normally, such a mechanism serves to protect health facilities in a conflict; in Syria, however, the government and its Russian allies have deliberately used the coordinates to carry out targeted strikes.
The UN’s investigation is only a small step toward truth and accountability for these horrific, persistent, and continuous attacks. As advocates await the Board of Inquiry’s conclusions, it’s critical that UN Secretary-General Guterres ensures that the findings are urgently made public and that the well-documented perpetrators of these attacks are named.
But for places like Idlib, time is running out. Joining our protest in front of the UN yesterday was Waad al-Kateab, a journalist, activist, and co-director and star of the Oscar-nominated documentary “For Sama.”
“As a mother, as a filmmaker, as just a human being, I’m asking every person all over the world to do something, to act for the Syrian people,” al-Kateab told the crowd.
As I stood alongside Waad and Syrian health professionals, I thought back to nearly 10 years ago, when PHR began to document attacks on health facilities in Syria. It soon became clear to all of us that this was a deliberate pattern, one that was widespread and systematic. So we began mapping: we examined every attack that we learned about from nurses or emergency medics on the ground, using witness testimony and materials from open sources to meticulously corroborate and document each one. Since we began this online, interactive mapping project, we have now documented 588 separate attacks on Syrian health facilities – each of these sites once a place of healing, but now turned into places of death and suffering by criminal Syrian and Russian bombardments.
Not only have health facilities been targeted. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, and pharmacists have been arrested, detained, tortured, and even executed. Thousands are still missing, despite the anguished searching of their family members and colleagues. Our most recent report, “My Only Crime Was That I Was a Doctor,” is told through the eyes of previously detained health workers, who struggled bravely and faced extreme cruelty as they tried to do their jobs under fire.
After their appearance at UN headquarters, the billboard trucks made a circle through midtown Manhattan, including Times Square. As the solemn trio drove past, New Yorkers and visitors looked on, a bit bewildered, most likely unaware of the suffering in Syria. They were going about their daily lives – which, after all, is what Syrians also yearn for. In the words of Dr. Ikrem from Idlib, as read to the crowd by Waad:
“I hope in 2020, when I wake up in the morning and read the news, I don’t read about dismembered children. I hope our children will go back to school and live a normal childhood like any other child.”
PHR and our many partners and colleagues are issuing an urgent call to Russia and Syria to #StopBombingHospitals. We are calling on people of conscience to sign our petition to the UN Secretary-General, to ensure that the truth about the barbaric targeting of health care in the Syrian conflict is known. We are appealing to all UN member states to do everything possible to save civilians in Idlib, as desperate Syrian men, women, boys, and girls remain under siege.
We can ask nothing less.