War surgeon reveals how healthcare workers are being ’systematically’ targeted in Syria
Dr David Nott; calling for a no-bombing zone in Syria protected by the international community
Date: 2016-01-25 09:29
David Nott, probably the world’s most experienced war surgeon, has grown used to loss.
As he looks back over photos of his last visit to Aleppo, Syria, he pauses for a moment over a picture of two young doctors, smiling at the camera in their blue scrubs.
“He was an anaesthetist I knew. He was killed two weeks ago last year. An air-to-ground missile,” Dr Nott says, sad but matter-of-fact, pointing to one of the pair. “And he was killed not long before,” he says, indicating the other. “Doctors are targeted.”
In the grim logic that has taken hold among Assad ranks and his allies, “healthcare is seen as a weapon”, he says. “You take out one doctor, you take out 10,000 people he or she can no longer care for.”
Dr Nott is known in the press as the Indiana Jones of surgery, a title he has never liked, but which attaches itself somewhat inevitably to a man who has saved lives in most of the world’s major conflicts since Bosnia in 1993.
But nothing has compared to his experiences in Syria where, he says, the work and lives of healthcare workers like him are under threat as never before.
“Nearly nobody is reporting this, the direct attacks on healthcare and healthcare workers,” he told The Independent last month, citing figures from the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, which recorded 23 attacks on medical facilities in Syria in October and November last year – all by Assad or Russian forces.
The United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs also reported that 20 health facilities were struck or damaged by aerial bombs dropped by the Assad regime or its allies in October and November, and that many aid organisations have had to scale back or suspend their operations as a result of increasing attacks. In December, Amnesty International said Russian air strikes had killed hundreds of civilians – and hit medical facilities.
Aid workers believe the increasing frequency of such attacks suggest a strategy. Nott has long been convinced that both Syrian – and now Russian – forces are intentionally hitting hospitals: a view that is shared by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, who accused the Russians of deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals and ambulances after speaking to Syrian civil defence workers in Southern Turkey earlier this month.
“The nature of the bombing has changed so completely in the past few months. It has to be the Russians,” Dr Nott says. “Russian jets fly very high up. Syrian jets fly lower, firing rockets and missiles. The Russian planes tend to be 10,000 ft up and you don’t see them, you just see the weapon hitting the hospital,” he says.
Hospital workers, supported by charities, have had to dig out new wards underground to escape the bombings. Now, Dr Nott says, because of the attacks, they are being driven to set up clinics in caves outside cities.
Dr Nott’s last memory of Syria is of a desperate journey from Aleppo to the border, in October 2014, after an aid visit in which barrel bombing by Assad regime was a constant threat.
“There were Syrian jets circling around, there were people being shot at… I remember the route. You had to put your foot down until you got 10 miles out of Aleppo.”
“The healthcare workers I work with are not fighters, they don’t carry weapons, they’re just there to help,” he says.
“What is happening to them is totally against international humanitarian law – hospitals should be protected and they are being targeted. Targeted to ensure the destruction of the healthcare system.
“The British are fighting Isis – fair enough – but this is happening daily and has been forgotten about.”