Four years after the start of the Syrian war, health care workers are among the conflict’s major targets, with at least 610 medical personnel killed during “deliberate” attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities since 2011, according to a report released Wednesday by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).
Medical personnel suffered the biggest casualties in 2014, the report found. One worker was killed every other day — most in the line of duty. The number of attacks on health workers has increased steadily as the war continues, the report added, with snipers positioned near hospitals shooting the wounded, and soldiers detaining those carrying gauze, syringes and other medical supplies coveted by opposition groups.
Rebel groups are behind a handful of health worker deaths. But the report noted that the Syrian government has committed 97 percent of the killings, with 139 deaths directly related to torture or execution.
Furthermore, the targeting of medical personnel as a weapon of war, according to PHR, leaves thousands of Syrians without health care.
“The Syrian government has resorted to every tactic: emergency-room arrests, hospital bombings — including barrel bombs — and even the torture and execution of doctors who attempt to treat the wounded and sick,” Erin Gallagher, PHR’s director of investigations, said in a statement. “Every doctor killed or hospital destroyed leaves hundreds or even thousands of Syrians with nowhere to turn for health care.”
PHR’s concerns mirror those of other aid agencies in Syria. Last month, the medical aid nonprofit Doctors Without Borders said that Syrian hospitals are increasingly struggling to cope with shelling amid "almost daily" attacks. The group, which operates four medical units inside Syria and provides support to more than 100 health care structures in besieged areas, noted that "the lifeline to keep those facilities operating is extremely tenuous."
Syria’s attacks on medical personnel are part of a disturbing trend across the world, in places like Central African Republic, the Gaza Strip and Ukraine, said PHR. In these countries, armed fighters staged "dozens, if not hundreds," of attacks in 2014.
“In Syria, a doctor can be detained and tortured just for being caught at a checkpoint with a roll of gauze,” said Donna McKay, executive director at PHR. “World leaders must not allow this onslaught against medical personnel to become the new normal in conflict.”