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Critical Patients in Eastern Ghouta Used as ‘Bargaining Chips’: SAMS

The Syrian government recently allowed only 29 of 600 critically ill patients in Eastern Ghouta to be evacuated in a prisoner exchange. It’s the latest example of the regime using a humanitarian situation as a bargaining chip, writes SAMS president Dr. Ahmad Tarakji.

Written by DR. Ahmad Tarakji Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
2017 12 28 photo 000015711
SAMS medical staff assist children during their medical evacuation from Eastern Ghouta last month. Abdulmonam Eassa/Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS)

Four years. That’s how long the residents of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus have been under siege. The Geneva Convention outlaws the use of siege as a tactic of war. It is a violation of fundamental moral principles and several United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. Yet here we are, entering 2018 and talking about a present-day siege. And this is not a siege that affects a few dozen individuals – it is one that has trapped nearly 400,000 innocent men, women and children.

Warring sides in the Syrian conflict have committed crimes that expose the worst of humanity. The situation in Eastern Ghouta is yet another devastating example of the international community’s failure to stop such egregious violations against humanity. The world sympathizes with the suffering of the Syrian people, and shares in our heartache at the shocking images of starving and injured children and dying elderly. But the people of Syria need action, not just words and empty promises.

My organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), has been providing medical care to the residents of Eastern Ghouta throughout the four-year siege. Currently, we operate more than half the medical facilities in the area. Every day, we face medicine shortages and systematic attacks on our facilities. Our doctors on the ground work tirelessly to save the lives of their patients with the limited resources available to them. Without permission to evacuate critically ill patients to specialized facilities, our doctors watch their patients die of curable illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.

It is no secret that there is no trust between the medical field teams in many Syrian towns and the Damascus-based international agencies.

Over the past six months, we have worked with the medical staff in Eastern Ghouta to identify critically ill patients and compile a list for U.N. agencies. We have also engaged with officials from the United States, Russia, Egypt and many members of the U.N. security council to secure the delivery of medical supplies and the evacuation of critically ill patients. A member of the UNSC leading the humanitarian efforts asked us to draft a new mechanism for the evacuation process, to make it more transparent and efficient. We proposed streamlining the process by having the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) take over the coordination process and assume responsibility for patients and their families while receiving treatment. We believe these steps will greatly increase transparency and protect against abuses. After submitting the proposal, we did not receive a response. Six months later, we are still waiting.

A child looks at an ambulance window during last month’s medical evacuation of 29 critically-ill patients from the Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs. (Abdulmonam Eassa/Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS))

Unfortunately, the parties involved in the conflict are not the only ones who ignore our inquiries and attempts to help; some of the very entities who have pledged to provide all necessary assistance are equally unresponsive. When faced with the chance to help, they are silent.

Today, the situation in Eastern Ghouta is worse than ever. More than 600 patients are on the medical evacuation list because there is no treatment available for them in the besieged area. More than a third are children. Since the initial evacuation request six months ago, 19 patients on the list have died.

The Syrian government recently approved the evacuation of 29 patients, including 18 children, to hospitals in Damascus. The evacuations started on December 26: 18 of the 29 patients were evacuated, two of the 29 died and nine refused to be evacuated due to the lack of security guarantees. These 11 patients were replaced with others to reach 29, all of whom were evacuated. Contrary to humanitarian principles and to our proposal, the evacuations were approved only as part of a military exchange.

Children are being used as bargaining chips. Two infants, 6-month-old Katr and 8-month-old Emad, who were on the list of critically ill patients, died last week awaiting evacuation. They both suffered from congenital heart disease.

This is an outrage; the life of a sick child should not be put at risk as part of a scheme to exchange prisoners. What’s more, nearly half of these patients would no longer require evacuation if the necessary medications were allowed into the besieged area. Instead, the Syrian government has repeatedly denied requests by the U.N. to send medicine into Ghouta.

All parties to the conflict must come together to allow the delivery of necessary medical supplies to Eastern Ghouta, and allow the remaining patients in need of evacuation to receive treatment at the location of their choosing. In addition, the U.N. should demonstrate leadership by taking responsibility for the safety and protection of the patients’ families, who often fear arrest or detention if evacuated to regime-controlled areas.

Furthermore, the U.N. Security Council should reassume its role of global leadership by passing a resolution calling for increased transparency in aid deliveries and medical evacuations throughout Syria, so that parties who violate international law or intentionally impede humanitarian access can be held accountable.

Until this happens, the suffering will continue. Thousands of children will continue to starve. There will be more needless, senseless deaths. If the doctors in Eastern Ghouta are willing to risk their lives every day, and patients’ families are willing to risk their safety and security in the hopes of giving their loved ones a chance to survive, then the least the world can do is meet them halfway.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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