This year marks nine years since the Syrian uprising spiraled into full-fledged war. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and wounded, orphaned and widowed. Millions of Syrians are displaced inside their own homeland and more than five million are refugees outside it, although neighboring countries have increasingly closed their borders, leaving desperate people trapped on the Syrian side of walls, fences and minefields.
Not to be forgotten are the bodies lining the floor of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, never to be counted or named.
But numbers cannot tell stories.
Between 2012 and 2015 I interviewed around 60 medics working in MSF-supported hospitals inside Syria. I don’t know their real names. The criminalization of medical work in opposition-controlled areas inside the war-torn country has turned doctors into targets instead of heroes.
Our conversations were about the “usual” things: the chronic shortages of medical supplies; the intense bombardments; the impossibility of securing the safety of patients, medical facilities and medical teams under constant threat. Some of the makeshift hospitals were underground in basements, others were in warehouses or in abandoned or partially bombed buildings.
One doctor in eastern Ghouta told me one grave holds his entire family.
We talked about surgery under zero anesthesia, about unaccompanied wounded children, and about the children whose parents never recovered from their injuries, leaving them orphans.
Often we also talked about life outside the hospital.
In one call, a doctor from an area in rural Homs governate spent ten minutes telling me how much he missed fresh vegetables, particularly cherry tomatoes. A dentist was also a surgeon and a poet. A pharmacist was a great cook, but most of the ingredients he longed for were impossible to find.
In the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta, medics were also mechanics and innovators: building turbines to produce electricity from running water to keep their hospital running without fuel. They told me that crossing checkpoints with medicines and medical supplies was dangerous, often deadly.
It was normal to run low on consumables like gauze and thread, on basic essentials like blood bags and general anesthesia.
Some of the doctors I spoke to have since been killed, others have fled or been forcibly displaced within Syria.
Despite periodic ceasefires and lulls in fighting, the conflict rages on and the medical and humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. The cyclical nature of besiegement and bombing campaigns have left few areas unscathed, from Aleppo and Raqqa to eastern Ghouta. Now Idlib in the northwest is the latest site of displacement and death.
The statistics from Syria may be fragmented, but some human stories do make it out. Art in all its forms has made it out of besieged areas and poured into the safety of our homes and screens. In these stories of suffering and survival from Syria, not only does art imitate life, but it also saves it from apathy and inaction.
Top image ©Robin Meldrum/MSF
Jehan Bseiso is a writer and is currently executive director of MSF Lebanon. She joined Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders in 2008 and has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Jordan and other countries.