Since 2011, more than 15,000 Syrian health professionals have fled the country, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Of the 2,000 doctors working in Aleppo city before the war, only 40 remained as of May 2014. In East Ghouta, the number of practicing physicians has plummeted from 1,000 before the war to an estimated 30.
The same group has also documented what it says are “systematic” attacks by the regime on medical facilities and personnel. In 2014, a health worker was killed nearly every other day.
More recently, Russian airstrikes struck three medical facilities at the end of September.
The trend, clearly, is for medical professionals operating in opposition-held areas of Syria to flee or else put their lives at risk. The Syrian regime has made is a capital offense to medically treat activists or rebels, all of whom are considered traitors. Medical personnel face danger from all directions, which makes the case of one pediatrician now practicing at the Talbisa Central Hospital all the more unusual.
The doctor, who requested anonymity, lived and practiced in Europe for 26 years and “lived in luxury,” as he said. Initially he was against the revolution, but when “the killing started and I saw the protests in Talbisa, my position started to change,” the doctor tells Syria Direct’s Khaloud al-Shami from the embattled town of Talbisa in Homs province.
Q: Why did you return to Syria?
I used to visit relatives in Syria twice a year. My last visit was eight months after [the revolution] started. When I saw tanks in the streets, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was astonished to learn that I and two others were the only doctors in Talbisa.
Before, I had a luxurious life. The country where I lived granted me nationality as well as a salary that allowed me to buy a house in a nice neighborhood. However, my sense of loyalty to my mother country, Syria, and the daily scenes of sick children without a doctor stirred in me a feeling that I had to carry out my national and professional duties.
Q: What is difficult about returning to Syria?
The difference in the standard of living was one of the hardest things for me in the beginning. I was used to a life where everything was readily available. Now I live under bombardment and there is a shortage of all the necessities that would be considered a natural right for a human being. In Talbisa, everything has become expensive, except for the price of human life.
Q: Is life in Syria different than you imagined it would be?
Of course it never occurred to me that people could die in this fashion, but in reality, death is the easiest route and is readily available. Surviving is what is hard.
Q: What are some of the cases that stick with you the most?
What pains me the most are the bombing injuries where limbs are cut off and heads are crushed. These are children who aren’t guilty of anything besides being born in Syria.
The most recent case happened with the family of my imprisoned cousin. The area they were living in was bombed, killing one of his children instantly. We tried to treat the other child. He needed to go to Homs city for a CT scan, because there isn’t a machine in Talbisa. His mother went back to the house to get her ID so she could get through the regime checkpoint, but when she returned to the Talbisa hospital she could tell from my tears that her child had died.
Q: Has your opinion on what is happening in the country changed over time?
When I was living outside Syria, and I would see scenes of the demonstrations in Daraa on television, I was against the revolution. But when the killing started and I saw the protests in Talbisa, which I am loyal to, my position began to change. When the city was stormed by the army for the first time, I would follow up with my family to know what was going on. So I decided to return to Syria because I felt like a traitor: I was living in luxury and my relatives were living under the harshest circumstances.