Heroes in Homs

Dr. Jacques Bérès

Homs is one of the cities in Syria where bloody battles between protesters and government forces have been occurring for the past year. Homs is the city where several journalists were killed in February.

Homs is also the city where some physicians are living up to the highest standards of their calling as healers.

Seventy-one year old, Dr. Jacques Bérès, a French surgeon and one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontière, did not let his age interfere with his need to help.  He was one of the only foreign physicians able to be smuggled into the city to provide medical aid to the anti-government forces.

His journey into Syria began in early February when he crossed the Lebanese border with the help of smugglers, carrying luggage filled with medical equipment. He then traveled by car and motorbike to Al Qusayr, another besieged city that is part of Homs Province, where he worked for a few days with a Syrian doctor. When he finally made it to Homs, he spent about two weeks there.

He was forced to move once — “I sensed that the building had become a target for government forces” — and conditions were far from ideal.

“The place was so crowded that we had to walk between the stretchers,” Dr. Bérès said in an interview late last month in his Paris apartment, just days after returning.

“I treated all kinds of wounds, from heavy mortars, shots from long-range sniper rifles, high-velocity rounds, shrapnel,” he said. His makeshift hospital was only a few minutes from Baba Amr, the neighborhood that had some of the heaviest shelling and fighting.

One day, he said, 11 people died in his hospital, some before he could even begin to treat them. “Some of them had brain damage and arrived already dead,” Dr. Bérès said. “Others were so severely injured that they could not be saved.”

Many of his patients were children, he said. At least 400 children have died since the beginning of the uprising, according to Unicef.

His trip was partially sponsored by two groups: France-Syrie Démocratie, and  UAM93, a federation of Muslim associations in Paris. The trip was the brainchild of Bérès, who has worked on the front lines of many conflicts since his initial combat experience in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Dr. Bérès said the participation of the Muslim federation was crucial.

But gaining its support was not easy. “I was strongly against this trip,” said M’hammed Henniche, the director of UAM93, who said he thought it was too risky. “But Dr. Bérès insisted so much that we finally paid for his ticket and begged him to keep his mouth shut during his stay.”

Mr. Henniche said that Dr. Bérès left because he could no longer cope with the violence and harsh living conditions in Homs, including the lack of hot water and electricity, and because he was exhausted from treating so many patients. “We also thought that he had to escape before the city was entirely besieged,” he added.

Dr. Bérès described the conditions he worked under and praised his Syrian co-workers and the supporters of the protesters.

Some people walked out of the hospital with bandages that had barely stopped the flow of blood, only three hours after they had been operated upon,” he said.

But he also emphasized the professionalism of his aides and the character of the Syrian opposition, as well as the spirit of solidarity among the city’s residents.

“The members of the opposition are formidable,” Dr. Bérès said. “They’re very smart, they’re very, very motivated, their morale is very strong regardless of what happens to them.”

Donations of blood, which are often difficult to obtain in war zones, “never caused us any trouble,” the doctor said. “There was almost a line of people ready to offer their blood.”

Here is a septuagenarian  physician, at an age when most would be satisfied to relax and enjoy their remaining years who risked his life to travel to a country at war and provide care in extremely dangerous conditions.

Of course, Homs is not the only Syrian city under siege, and Bérès not the only physician working in the conflict. An unnamed doctor in Damascus also discusses the conditions while treating protesters, and avoiding government forces who show absolutely no mercy for the injured or those who aid them.

I took some medical equipment and went to the mosque, using side streets to avoid snipers. Inside it was terrible. There were no medical supplies, not many doctors, too many injured people… People were dying in front of my eyes.

We asked them to go to the hospital, but they said: ‘We can’t – yesterday people were taken to the hospitals and now we don’t know what has happened to them.’ Their friends had told them that going to hospital is basically a death sentence. The security forces might arrest you, torture you, or even kill you.

My colleague was working at a military hospital in Damascus. He said a lot of injured people came in – some with only minor injuries – and all of them were killed.

I asked him, ‘Are you sure about that?’ He said, ‘Yes I’m sure. All of them were dead.’

At the [civilian] government hospitals, they didn’t kill anyone, but they were beating them. One of the injured men I treated myself had a fracture in his hip bone where he’d been shot, and I asked him: ‘Why is this? A bullet does not make this kind of injury.’

The physicians work in independent cells modelled after the branches of resistance and spying organizations.

Every doctor has his branches, and the branch has its own branches, so sometimes we are working in the same organisation but we don’t all know each other.

That way if someone gets caught and they force him to name names, not too many other doctors will be arrested too.

We set up field hospitals in basements, farms, abandoned building, even cars.

Medical workers are not only in danger from indiscriminate bombings and shootings, they are often targeted for their actions.

If a doctor is caught treating demonstrators, they might arrest him or even kill him. Two days ago a doctor in Homs was murdered with a knife through his neck. And five days ago, another doctor was also murdered with a knife, along with his wife and three children.

So far I believe 54 medical staff have been killed, including nurses, doctors and medical students.

His motivation is simple–he is a doctor.

When we graduated from medical school we took the Hippocratic oath. And the way that I was raised, my religion, everything. I’m part of the human race, and I need to honour this oath, as a doctor and as a human.”

I am not in any way downplaying the actions of those who have lost their lives and families in this, or any other, fight against totalitarianism. However, these physicians are not carrying any weapons other than scalpels, forceps, and bandages. They deserve recognition.

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