As It Happens

Doctors say Syrian hospitals targeted after sharing co-ordinates with United Nations

Over the past month, 25 medical facilities in Idlib province have been bombed. At least nine of those facilities had shared their co-ordinates with the United Nations, who in turn passed them on to Syria and Russia in an effort to shield them from attacks. 

Dr. Zaher Sahloul says he believes Russia and Syria are misusing the UN data

A picture taken on May 5, 2019, shows destruction at the entrance of a hospital in the village of Kafr Nabl, south of Idlib province. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)
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Doctors around the world are calling for an end to a flurry of hospital bombings in northwest Syria — in what they say are targeted attacks by Syrian and Russian forces. 

Over the past month, 25 medical facilities in Idlib province have been bombed, the doctors say. At least nine of those facilities had shared their co-ordinates with the United Nations, who in turn passed them on to Syria and Russia in an effort to shield the hospitals from attacks. 

Dozens of doctors have signed an open letter calling for the bombings to end. Dr. Zaher Sahloul, an exiled Syrian doctor now living in the U.S., is one of them. 

Sahloul, who just returned from Idlib province, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what he witnessed. Here is part of that conversation. 

We have been watching, since this war began in Syria, watching and seeing hospitals and medical centres that are bombed. But in Idlib we're talking about 25 bombed in just one month. ... Why the high number?

In the Syrian context, this is actually a world record. Hospitals have been targeted in Syria from the beginning of the crisis, mostly by the Syrian regime and the Russians.

Why do you think that it's such a high number in this month?

It looks like it's an orchestrated … effort by the Syrian regime and the Russians to displace people from northern Hama and southern Idlib. This is the last province that is controlled by the opposition.

I would say that this is a very successful military campaign targeting hospitals because the 25 hospitals that were bombed led to displacement of about 250,000 people.

Syrian health-sector workers hold banners during a rally in the village of Atmeh in the northern Idlib province Sept. 6, 2018. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

We've ... spoken with doctors as these hospitals have been bombed [who say] that it's just chaos. I mean, you're trying to get people out who are on IVs, you have women who have just given birth, who are in labour, you have children who are sick. ... This is what the hospitals have been dealing with right?

The impression or the perception is that these are hospitals that are treating injured fighters. It is not the case. These are the hospitals in town that are treating children who have fever or who have stomach pain.

It's crimes against humanity, but it's done systematically.

I've seen, in one of the hospitals, an elderly man who had two chest tubes because his village was bombed and he had injury to his chest and he was very depressed. He told me "What did I do to deserve this?"

When Dr. Muhammad Waseem Maaz was killed in a 2016 airstrike in Aleppo, he was one of the last pediatricians still working inside the war-torn city. "Who will treat those babies?" his friend and colleague Dr. Abdul Aziz said in an interview with AIH host Carol Off. (Ben Shannon/CBC Radio) 2:38

This open letter that you and many other doctors have signed, you're demanding the United Nations investigate these most recent hospital attacks in Idlib. What specifically are you asking them to investigate?

They report on this bombing of hospitals as if it is normal and they are supposed to investigate these attacks on hospitals the same way they investigated chemical weapon attacks.

These medical centres and these hospitals shared their co-ordinates, their GPS co-ordinates, with United Nations.  ... What did the United Nations do with that information that has made these medical centres so much more vulnerable?

The hospitals were convinced by the [the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs] … to share their co-ordinates with the United Nations Security Council for protection.

This is a process that is called de-conflicting. That means the location of the hospital will become public and that way they are spared from bombing.

Hospitals and NGOs started to share this information, but that did not prevent these hospitals from being targeted with smart bombs.

So clearly the Russians have taken this information, then used them to target hospitals.

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence checks the rubble at a medical centre following reported shelling by the Syrian government in the rebel-held Idlib province on April 30, 2019. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

How has the United Nations responded so far to this letter that all of you have written?

The typical response, which is condemnations ... There was a recent United Nations Security Council session where [Mark Lowcock], the chief of humanitarian affairs kind of condemned the bombing of hospitals without assigning responsibility.

And he even mentioned that he would not have a response to the hospitals that ask him: "Should we share our GPS co-ordinates with the UN?"

So that UN chief of humanitarian affairs knows that the UN is guilty. He knows that they do not have a response to that. But in spite of that we're ... not seeing a movement within the UN to have investigation and assign accountability.

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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