Eighteen months ago, Dr. Suray Bakkar was a cardiovascular specialist at Syria’s largest teaching hospital at Damascus University. Originally a resident of al-Houwla, outside Homs, Bakkar fled to Jordan after Syrian intelligence questioned him for treating the wounded in his hometown, a not-uncommon practice as the regime has targeted medical personnel for treating wounded rebels and revolution sympathizers.
Today, he oversees Syrian Relief and Development’s (SRD) 28-bed wing at the Akilah Hospital in Amman, where he and 10 Syrian surgeons provide desperately needed medical care for up to 3,000 Syrians a month, many of whom arrive directly from the south’s Daraa province. On the day Syria Direct’s Elizabeth Parker-Magyar visited, doctors were treating Alma Shahdud, a mother of three from Damascus’s Meidan district, who says she was paralyzed following a beating that broke her vertebrae while in prison.
Dr. Suray Bakkar receives an award from news anchor Scott Pelley at the International Rescue Committee’s Freedom Awards in New York City.
Bakkar was recently honored by the International Rescue Committee at its 2013 Freedom Awards Dinner. He travels frequently in and out of Syria, where SRD distributes medical supplies in rebel-controlled areas and runs hospitals in the Damascus suburbs, Daraa and Homs.
Here, Bakkar talks about his efforts to treat Syrians in hard-to-reach areas, and the tactic of blockade-then-starvation that he says the regime is using across the country.
Q: What kind of medical care is available to citizens in areas controlled by rebels?
It is really a bad situation inside [Syria]. They’re in need of most supplies, medical equipment and medicine. They are doing a lot of surgeries without sterile gloves, sometimes without gloves at all. Especially in blockaded areas, the situation is bad. They’re using tissues, or garbage bags, for gauze. It’s bad. They need more supplies, more medicine. We are planning to support most places, but we don’t have sufficient supplies to provide sufficient support.
Our hospitals are maybe just three kilometers from regime forces, and you can be bombed at any time. It is not 100% safe.
Q: We’re sitting in Amman, 100 kilometers from the Syrian border. Patients travel quite far to arrive here.
Yes. Those who come to our hospital are most likely from Daraa and Damascus nowadays. Nowadays, the border is closed, so the number of people arriving from inside Syria has decreased. So most of our patients now are Syrians who already live in Jordan, who have already fled to Jordan because of the conflict.
Q: Are most of your patients young men?
Not necessarily, there are children, there are young men, there are women. But a lot of children and women come as well. We most commonly see orthopedic and general surgery. Some we do fresh medical care, some we re-open for infections. We treat emergency cases, appendectomies.
Q: We’ve heard a lot of stories of starvation in blockaded areas like Moadimiyet. Do you receive cases of malnutrition?
There’s a blockade in Moadimiyet, Daraya, and Doma, but we receive reports, videos, photos, stories of starvation. They’re not only children, but older. But we don’t receive many cases ourselves. These types of cases have been occurring for over a year. They happen in Houla, Homs, Old Homs, Daraya, Moadimiya.
Q: Are you concerned about the kidnappings of aid workers inside Syria? There was recently a doctor kidnapped while working in the Damascus suburbs.
We depend mainly on staff who are available in the area itself.
But we have lost people who have died in bombings, or who were driving shipments from place to place. Maybe 150 doctors have been lost or arrested moving from place to place.
I was arrested for four days in Homs. It was the first time in my life I had seen a prison as it was inside Syria.
It’s a secret agency – mukharabat jawiyye – the most difficult place in Homs. All the Syrian people know about it. They practice all kinds of punishment toward arrested people, using electricity, killing, psychological punishment. They want to make you afraid all the time.
We didn’t know how to sleep: the day is the same as the night. You don’t know which is which, only when they give you food. There were seven of us in an area 2 meters by 1 meter. When we slept we had to sleep on one side, pushing our legs between another, interlocking our legs so that we could just barely lie down.
You cannot sleep continuously because you cannot recognize the night from the day. You’re just killing time, from 8 in the morning to midnight. This is punishment. Every day they choose one person to go out. I was blindfolded, my eyes were blocked, my hands were tied, I was barefoot.
You can’t drink water, so to drink – I apologize for saying this to you – you had to drink toilet water. If they didn’t have this faucet for the toilet, we would have drunk urine. So we were really happy when we would go to the WC, just to drink water.
Q: Did you decide to leave Syria after that?
After that, yes, I decided to leave Syria. My family and my friends pushed me, so I decided to leave. I was released under pressure – I paid an amount of money to leave, to the people there. It was illegal. A reshwa, a bribe.
Q: Is your family still inside Syria?
I am originally from al-Houla, but I lived in the city of Homs. You know al-Houla, it was the site of the first massacre. I try not to remember these things. It’s horrible, but I am not keeping it in my mind. I left a long time ago, but my family – my sisters, brothers – they are all still there.
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