Syria's Doctors and the Revolution

10 January 2014


Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, it has been clear that medical staff would be consistently targeted by the regime. The work of doctors, nurses and medical students and volunteers in aiding wounded demonstrators soon became a revolutionary act in itself.

Early in the uprising, Syrian doctors received official instructions not to assist the wounded at the peaceful demonstrations that were spreading throughout the country. The regime was using medical and emergency aid as a weapon to silence dissent, a trend that would increase over the following months and years. This led to field hospitals being set up to hide from the regime and treat the injured.

Since then, many doctors have been arrested, tortured and killed for doing their job, such as doctor Ayham Ghazzoul in Damascus. Syria Untold has interviewed Damascus doctor Abu Abdou (pseudonym), who had one of his colleagues arrested at the first demonstration in the Umayyad mosque, on March 18. After that, he witnessed on several occasions how far the regime would go in its crimes against humanity. “I saw a nurse working with the security officers to intentionally give a patient from Daraa the wrong medicines”, he recalls. “I saw a doctor being arrested for not wanting to collaborate with the authorities and mistreat patients.”

Soon, the medical system collapsed in the country. Arrests of medical staff and mistreatment of patients led to a huge popular reaction, including a statement, signed by 350 doctors, that called for the protection of medical staff. “It was a high number”, Abou Abdou added. “More than we expected. By that time, it was already clear that the cruelty of the regime would bear no limits and would exclude no one, including those healing the wounded.”

During the large demonstration that took place in Damascus on April 22, 2011, Abu Abdou himself was arrested while photographing the protest from a distance, and interrogated at a security branch.  

After his release, he was invited to join the next demonstration in the Midan neighborhood. ”I was unable to enter the area because security officers were preventing anyone who was not from the district from accessing it. Soon after, I got a call from a friend telling me there were many demonstrators injured in Midan and they needed help. He led me to a small side road through which we were able to access the area and assist the wounded.”

Since that incident, and in coordination with a colleague, Abu Abdou followed every demonstration taking place in the city, armed with his first aid kit, ready to assist the increasing number of injured and take them to a field hospital.

Their work became increasingly professionalized, as Abu Abdou and his colleagues set field hospitals to receive the wounded brought to them by civil activists.

After August 2011, the doctors began training young men and women in first aid, so that they could help in emergencies. Their work spread from Zabadani to the outskirts of Damascus, incorporating different sorts of volunteers, engineers and medical workers. The Union of Free Syrian Doctors was born.

The road ahead was full of threats, attacks and obstacles, as anyone not strictly following the regime’s orders was targeted and hunted down. With time, many doctors and medical staff joined the armed rebellion to assist the wounded inside the Free Syrian Army.

Abu Abdou, who is currently suffering health problems, is still active in relief work. “I will never erase from my memory the image of this man who had been wounded. An officer who was standing next to me told me to send him to the morgue fridge. He was still alive, and he wanted me to send him to the morgue. And the irony is that the wounded was a soldier from the regime’s army… They didn’t care.”

“Militarization has failed. Sometimes I dream that the revolution goes back to being peaceful”, Abu Abdou added. “Is this possible?”, Syria Untold asked him. “I think it is”, he answered. “Despite the militarization, the revolution, the civil movement on the ground continue. Syrians continue to demand their rights. They have paid a huge price for their right to freedom, and a civil democratic state, and I don’t think they will give up. The Syrian people know their way.”

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad