5 Years and counting of brutality against the peopleFor the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are active in the same conflict in Syria.
Today marks the 5th year of the bloody civil war in Syria that has spread into the Middle East and to the borders of Europe. According to UNHCR, 4.7 million Syrian refugees have fled the country and nearly 8 million are displaced within Syria — together accounting for more than half of the entire population of Syria. To compare, imagine if the entire population of Seoul went on the run, fleeing home in search of safety.
Since the war began in Syria 5 years ago, more than 250,000 people have been killed. In 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) found that 30% to 40% of the people killed or wounded in Syria were women and children, indicating the brutality against civilian populations.
From ordinary citizens to informed observers, including our medical staff working on the ground, each of us has been horrified by the level of violence of this endless conflict and by knowing that tomorrow it might get worse. A recent partial ceasefire has reduced fighting in parts of the devastated country, but despite this and past peace talks, the war continues and blood continues to be shed.
Nearly 2 million people are trapped in sieges imposed by the Syrian government-led coalition as well as by opposition groups. This highly vulnerable population struggles constantly to survive, facing armed violence, diseases, and malnutrition. In addition to physical suffering, people in these death traps must endure psychological suffering that should not be underestimated.
For those trapped inside Syria, the destruction of key infrastructure — including hospitals, schools, water pumps, grain silos, and bakeries — makes life increasingly untenable. While securing basic food and commodities is a main challenge for the population, access to humanitarian aid and medical services have been severely reduced. Medicines and medical supplies are systematically blocked and the evacuation of critically ill or wounded patients is all but impossible under siege.
Inside Syria’s borders, when we are unable to obtain authorization from the government to work, MSF sends medicines and supplies and provides support to networks of Syrian medical staff tirelessly working in besieged areas and active conflict zones. This form of support certainly falls far short of what is fully needed, but it is often the most that we can do when access is denied. In the neighboring countries — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq — MSF is operating projects for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, including provision of trauma surgery, maternal and child health, mental health, and treatment of chronic diseases.
In all of these projects, the dedication of the medical staff is impressive, as they try to offer a good level of care to the population, despite the extreme volatility of the context and the fact that they are a soft target for the belligerents.
Already in 2016, 17 health facilities have been bombed in Syria, including 6 supported by MSF. Last month, a MSF-supported hospital in Idlib in northern Syria was destroyed by airstrikes, killing 25 people, including 9 staff members. About 40,000 people living in the area now have no access to medical care. In 2015, a total of 63 MSF-supported health facilities were bombed or shelled — 12 were completely demolished.
Even worse, “double tap” military strategies have been seen, in which a second attack happens within an hour of the first attack, targeting rescue workers and medical responders as they arrive on the scene or bring wounded patients to another facility. This is an abhorrent, inhumane practice that makes these disastrous situations even worse.
How long must we keep accepting the unacceptable of patients and hospitals being attacked? In the name of which principles and values can we accept this situation that deeply shames human dignity?
Will the conflict end only when all of Syria has been emptied of its people?
Last year when I visited refugee settlements in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon — where the majority of Syrian refugees have settled, and where MSF began primary health care provision in 2012 — I was struck by the vacant eyes I saw in some of the Syrian children and their relatives. As I sat with them by their makeshift shelters, they told me about how they fled their hometown, quickly leaving behind all their belongings, escaping only with their lives and their hopes.
Most of the refugees I met had what they defined as a “normal life” — they had a job, children going to school, and young married couples were making plans for their future. But suddenly the situation deteriorated — some had to leave their homes within one night, packing only essential items to start a long and dangerous journey.
For these desperate families, international peace talks are only that — talk. Meeting and talking is by itself not an achievement. Over the past 5 years, the belligerent parties have failed to protect the Syrian people and have increased their suffering. And yet they have a responsibility to spare civilians. The UN Security Council should follow its own resolutions that call for the stopping of all attacks against civilians, and all parties to the conflict should allow full humanitarian access to all besieged areas and unhindered movement for medical evacuations, supplies, and staff on the ground.
The Syrian people — like all people — deserve concrete actions to allow them to live safely and rebuild their lives. Until then, MSF will keep treating and helping as many patients as possible, who are in desperate medical and humanitarian need.
We often say the world is a global village. It is time we take care and protect all the villagers.
*The author is the General Director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Korea. Previously, he was head of Mission of MSF field operations in Lebanon, which includes medical support for Syrian refugees.