A Daily news digest by Jasper van Santen

Red Cross presses for international action to protect medics targeted in war zones- The Observer

In News on April 22, 2012 at 20:43

red cross

Red Cross presses for international action to protect medics targeted in war zones

As rebel troops hunting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi besieged the Libyan town of Sirte in the final days of the uprising, Dr Ali Mohamad al-Khamli made a dangerous choice. The 26-year-old Libyan surgeon decided to stay on in the Ibn Sina hospital, knowing that his humanitarian gesture meant he was risking his life. But he did not realise that he might face death at the hands of patients’ relatives.

Al-Khamli and his colleagues were trying to save the lives of the wounded under the most difficult circumstances. “The water tank of our hospital was damaged in the fighting, and medical supplies were not being received,” he said. “At one point we had to use candles and the lights of our mobile phones to operate on patients, as we had no fuel for our generator. The worst, however, happened when our operating theatre was hit by rockets and destroyed.”

For the next 12 hours, no surgery was possible in spite of the rising number of wounded. Dead bodies were delivered too, but there was nowhere to keep them. Al-Khamli carried on as best he could, barely eating, and sleeping for just three or four hours a day.

In such tense and desperate circumstances families turned their guns on the doctors, ready to do anything to ensure that their child, mother or father was treated first. Surgeons were threatened that, if the patient died, they would pay with their own lives. “I learned that other rules take over during war,” said al-Khamli.

But he carried on, attempting to work according to his own medical ethics. “Despite the lack of respect shown by some people with weapons, doctors have to meet the needs of the patients.”

Dr Mustafa Elijaafari, 25, returned to Libya from his studies in London during the conflict and operated in field hospitals with a dozen other young doctors on the front lines of Sabha and Bani Walid. He, too, found the normal boundaries between care and conflict could simply disappear. “We had to set clear rules in the field hospitals, as people were entering with their weapons,” he said. “People had to understand that we were there to heal wounds, not to cause them.”

In Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other conflict-torn countries, international rules and understandings on the sanctity of hospitals and other medical facilities are being eroded as never before. Television footage has made the dangers that healthcare staff run more visible. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has embarked on a major campaign to persuade governments and international organisations to work to protect healthcare in conflict situations and encourage respect for medical ethics.


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