Humanitarian Lectures | Interview with Tawfik Chamaa MD

Deliberate attacks on medical facilities run counter to the Geneva Convention, which explicitly designates hospitals as protected areas. Nevertheless, medical infrastructures continue to be the main target of these attacks, intensifying the healthcare professional’s diaspora.


Dr. Tawfik Chamaa is the coordinator of the Union des Organisations (UOSSM) de Soins et Secours Médicaux, an international NGO based in Paris, whose mission is to guarantee permanent access to quality and graceful health care, namely to the populations affected by the war in Syria. Dr. Chamaa has given FRONTAL an exclusive interview on the state of health in the scenario of war.

How often are UOSSM infrastructures directly attacked? Does this ONG possess any strategic plan to deal or minimize the consequences of such attacks to their health facilities and professionals?

How many times we have been attacked… we actually have statistics and it is very frequent. Since 2014, we have been attacked almost every month. It varies, during this war, depending on what belligerence wants to win.

Unfortunately, health was and is still up until now a weapon. Humanitarian and health structures have been weaponized, pressuring people to flee from side to side. If you want precise figures, you can go to our site, our Facebook page, or I can give you many studies on it. Physicians for human rights did many studies before us, but actually we are heralding figures about how many attacks. Most of our hospitals have been attacked at least once. 20 to 30 people have been completely destroyed, many doctors have been killed during these attacks. Since 2011 we have lost 732 doctors, and more than 2600 are jailed, in Syria. This is the first part about how many, and figures, as I said, you can find them on our references.

For our strategy, we started, from the very beginning, by trying to call for protection from the international community. So, we held many international conferences. The first one was in Geneva, by the end of 2015, called “Protect Hospitals and Health Workers in Syria”. The same concept and conference were repeated 3 months later in Berlin, 6 months later in Paris and 9 months later in London. Unfortunately, attacks continued and we kept losing doctors. We then started to reinforce the structures of these hospitals, using concrete, digging underground, but the attackers started to use bunker buster bombs, special bombs to get through 3-4 floors of concrete, to get through mountains… They were very decided to attack us and destroy these health structures, because all the war is based on making the people flee. If you destroy health structures, you make people flee and you change the demography. And this is the real war in Syria: changing demography.

The last, and not least, point of our strategy is to “deconflict” our structures. That’s what we did recently: we went in negotiations directly with the Russians and asked them to stop bombing our hospitals under the pretention that there are military activities on our heath structures. So we suggested them to monitor our activity through webcams connected to the United Nations, so they could see in real time, all the time, that we don’t have any military activities, that we do have humanitarian activities, we are treating civilians, children, woman. They accepted this principle and we are working, nowadays, to implement it to protect our hospitals from bombings.

The collapse of the health system in Syria, especially in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition, reveals lack of strategic planning to deal with the health crisis. Which are the major problems you identify? And which solutions should be considered?

Red lines have been crossed during this war. Everything humanity learned, from the middle ages, like not attacking civilians and health structures, the Geneva Convention, human rights principles, has been forgotten. Many other red lines have been crossed during this war, unfortunately. I think the main challenge, not only for Syrians, not only for humanitarians, but for all humanity is to reconsider this moment of the human history. Normalizing horror, justifying killing civilians and attacking health workers, means the acceptance of the principle of total war, means accepting collateral damage on civilians all over. This is a very dangerous shift for the next wars and armed conflicts all over the world. I think humanity and the international community must reconsider this situation seriously, because it is a real threat for the future of us all. Wars with no limits started in Syria and, if it continues, it will be a real threat to all humanity.
What we are trying to do now is to get in touch with our aggressors and negotiate with them, know exactly what they want and how exactly can we “deconflict” those zones. We would like them to understand that our suffering is not the solution for their strategic plans. This is our main strategy now: to start negotiations with all implicated parties in Syria. It is a very complicated situation, so we are trying to negotiate and discuss with all of these parties, on the ground, to try and save our health work.

Interviewer: Ana Luís Falcão

Recording and editing: Maria Moreno

Transcription: André Ferreira

Revision: Paulo Lucas


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