Hospital bombings won't keep them away from Syria or Yemen, health workers say

As the World Health Organization reports almost 1,000 people have been killed in attacks on hospitals and health-care workers in war zones, a nurse and a doctor say that won't stop them from returning to places like Syria and Yemen that desperately need their help.

'Before the airstrike, you always hear the plane,' says Canadian working for Doctors Without Borders

In Syria, medical teams are working in hospitals built underground or in this 'Central Cave Hospital' dug into a mountain in an effort to protect themselves and their patients from bombings, says Dr. Zaher Sahloul of the Syrian-American Medical Society. (Syrian American Medical Society)

A Canadian nurse says a rise in illegal attacks on hospitals and health-care services won't stop her from working in war-torn countries.  

On Thursday, the World Health Organization released a report documenting 594 attacks on hospitals and clinics — many in the Middle East and Africa — between January 2014 and December 2015. Those attacks killed 959 medical staff, patients and visitors and injured more than 1,500 people, the report said.   

Those numbers don't include the casualties from hospital and clinic bombings this year in Syria.   

"I think it's a human right ... to have access to health care," said Céline Langlois, who works as a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). "Once you hear all of the stories that people are ... facing in a war zone, you cannot just walk away."

"This is a huge problem. Attacks on health workers are not isolated, they are not accidental and they are not stopping," said Dr. Bruce Aylward, the interim head of emergency response at WHO.

Langlois, who is living in Montreal after returning from a five-month assignment in Yemen in November, has seen first-hand how the threat to health-care workers in conflict zones has increased.  

Céline Langlois of Doctors without Borders says she was 'lucky' to be born in Canada and not in a war zone. She says that's one of the reasons she feels compelled to continue working in high-risk areas, despite the fact that health-care workers have become targets in war. (Celine Langlois)

For example, when she worked in the midst of a war in the Central Africa Republic, rebel fighters would ask Doctors Without Borders to move away from any area they intended to hit, Langlois said. 

"I did not feel, you know, they will touch me or they will target us," she said. "But in Yemen ... it's really different."

"It's always in your mind that you are in a zone where you're not really safe anywhere."

Langlois worked in Taiz, on the front line of Yemen's war, where the few hospitals left standing were overwhelmed and only treating fighters and civilians wounded by the conflict, leaving no medical services for anyone else. 

Her team opened a hospital, completely staffed by women, dedicated to maternal and children's care. But Langlois doubts the facility's specialization will make it less of a target for attacks.  

"I wish but I don't think so," she said.   

'You know when they are coming to bomb'

To try to stay out of the line of fire, medical teams are constantly aware of their surroundings, she said. 

"Before the airstrike, you always hear the plane," she said. "You know when they are coming to bomb ... because the planes are, you know, flying really low.

"So of course when you hear the plane, everyone really gets nervous and everyone looks for shelter because we don't know where they're going to hit."

While working in that environment, feeling afraid isn't a bad thing, Langlois said, because it helps ensure she stays alert. 

"You have to balance between what you feel comfortable with ... but to not feel too comfortable," she said. "Because if you're not aware anymore, this is where ... [it becomes] really dangerous." 

'My humanitarian duty'

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a critical care physician in Chicago and past-president of the Syrian American Medical Society, said "the situation is horrible," in Syria, but he keeps going back. 

Doctors and nurses are working in "extreme conditions" to protect themselves and their patients from bombings, Sahloul said, including building hospitals 10 metres underground. One facility, he said, is actually housed inside a mountain. 

Doctors without Borders opened a hospital dedicated to maternal and children's care in Taiz, Yemen, after discovering the overwhelmed hospitals in the battle-worn area were only treating fighters and civilians wounded by war. (Celine Langlois )

"It's amazing," Sahloul said. He said the hospital housed in a mountain has an emergency room, operating room and intensive care services.

Sahloul, who is from Syria and has a family in Chicago, said he will continue to return to the conflict zone despite the rising danger as health-care workers are targeted in the war. 

"I believe this is my humanitarian duty and also my duty to my homeland," he said. "I was trained in medicine in Syria before I came to Chicago and became a successful physician here."

"If we do not give back to that place that, you know, made us successful then I think there's a problem with our humanity."

'I want to see my hospital running'

Langlois is awaiting her next deployment with Doctors Without Borders in July. She doesn't yet know where she'll be sent, but is happy to go back to Yemen, where she bonded with staff and community members.

"You are hearing stories of, you know, what they are going through," she said. "I want to go back to them and I want to see my hospital running."

Although she has never worked in Syria, it's another place Langlois is willing to go. There are many reasons — both personal and professional — she travels to high-risk areas, she said.    

"It could be me," she said. "If I was not born in Canada, you know, and I was not lucky enough to be born here maybe I [would have been] ... born in the war zone."

Professionally, Langlois said, she has never felt as satisfied as when she manages to open a hospital in a conflict zone. 

"I feel really invested in that," she said. "[The] "needs are really, really, really high."

About the Author

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from The Associated Press


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