A Syrian doctor and nurse have borne witness to Syrian war crimes. But they can’t travel to the U.N. to talk about it.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
In the high-risk world of conflict medicine, Doctor Farida stands out for her nerve and grit.
For more than four years, the 38-year-old Syrian doctor has braved barrel bombs, rockets and one of the world’s most protracted military sieges to deliver medical care to expecting mothers in a city largely bereft of doctors.
Farida, and Abu Rajab, a Syrian nurse who worked in eastern Aleppo’s largest trauma hospital, had planned to relate their experiences in the final grueling months of the city’s siege to U.N. Security Council members in a special session at U.N. headquarters later this month.
But their visa applications were rejected on January 29 by U.S. authorities due to President Donald Trump’s travel ban. They don’t believe they will obtain new visas in time to attend the meeting, despite the stay on the ban imposed last week.
“This was my opportunity, and I lost it,” Farida said in a phone interview from the countryside outside the city of Idlib, where she moved with her husband and daughter after the fall of eastern Aleppo.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries is stopping witnesses to atrocities in Syria from traveling to the United States to U.N. diplomats and U.S. lawmakers, closing off a key public avenue for shaming Syria, Russia and Iran for their human-rights violations in the nearly 6-year-old war.
The United States and its Arab and Western allies have repeatedly relied on the testimony of Syria’s besieged medical professionals to illustrate the horrors of the conflict and to help marshal diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his military allies, Iran and Russia, to accept a political settlement to a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and driven millions of Syrians from their country.
“It is a big impediment to the very advocacy the United States and other like minded countries, who are concerned about atrocities in Syria, are advancing,” Susannah Sirkin, the director of international policy and partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights, told Foreign Policy.
She also called it a “slap in the face” to those who have suffered the most. “The message it sends is ‘we don’t care.’”
Last month, Sirkin filed a letter before a Boston U.S. federal judge voicing concern that the president’s executive order could undercut her group’s ability to raise public awareness about atrocities in Syria and other conflict zones included under the Trump ban.
Farida, who asked that only her first name be published for fear of reprisals by the government, said she saw her visit as an opportunity to tell the world’s big powers–as well as U.S. lawmakers during a side trip to Washington, D.C.–about the atrocities in her native city. That would have included an account of the Russian and Syrian bombers, as well as the Iranian frontline soldiers she claimed entered eastern Aleppo, and participated in attacks on homes, hospitals and schools.
Farida worked out of the Omar Ibn Abdel Aziz hospital, which carried out 125 obstetric deliveries of babies and 74 C-sections every month, according to the United Nations. In one particularly brutal stretch of fighting, it came under fire three times during a 45-day period between June and July 2016.
The U.N. Security Council, she said, “has to know what happened in Aleppo.”
Over the past 25 years, firsthand accounts from doctors, relief workers and other professionals have become a key channel of information for the Security Council–which decides on joint military action by U.N. members–to learn about atrocities in armed conflicts. Previously, ordinary people, including victims of wars, had been barred from addressing the security body.
That changed in the early 1990s, when a Croatian priest, Fra Joko Zovko, persuaded the then Security Council president, Diego Arria of Venezuela, to host an informal meeting with council members in the U.N. delegates lounge, so that he could describe atrocities that he had witnessed in the Bosnian war.
That session — which became known as an Arria Formula meeting — set a precedence that allowed other individuals and private groups to provide briefings to the Security Council on everything from human rights violations in armed conflicts to the mass exodus of refugees in Africa and the Middle East.
Last year, Samantha Power, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, brought Dr. Mohammed Tennari, a Syrian radiologist who treated victims of chlorine attacks on the town of Sarmeen, before the 15-nation Security Council to highlight Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
The Trump ban threatens to deal a blow to the effort to open the U.N. Security Council to such voices, critics said, harming its ability to hear the views of eyewitnesses in critical war zones where they play a pivotal role in seeking peace.
As the last working female obstetrician in Eastern Aleppo during the Syrian government siege, Dr. Farida delivered about 1,500 babies before she was evacuated from the city in December. She described a chaotic final weeks before the rebel defense of eastern Aleppo collapsed under the pressure of Syrian and Russian air strikes. Homes, schools and hospitals were decimated.
“She is a hero to many of us,” Zaher Sahloul, a senior advisor and former president of the Syrian American Medical Society, told FP.
Rajab, a radiology nurse at the M10 hospital, the largest trauma hospital in eastern Aleppo, witnessed his own set of horrors, including an October 1 barrel bomb attack on the facility that the then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon characterized as a war crime.
Rajab cared for eastern Aleppo’s most famous victim, Omar Daqneesh, a 5-year-old Syrian boy who became a symbol of the war’s depravity after the publication of a photograph showing him seated in an orange ambulance seat, his face blooded and caked with dirt.
Trump’s executive order bars visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from traveling to the U.S. For 90 days, and refugees for 120 days. The ban permanently prevents Syrian refugees into the country.
Farida and Rajab on January 29 each received an email from U.S. authorities denying their required visa interviews for travel to the United States, citing the Trump ban. The email cited an exemption to the ban, which permitted individuals who work on behalf of international organizations, including NATO and presumably, the United Nations, to enter the country.
It remained unclear whether the exemption applied only to employees of such agencies, or whether private individuals, including human rights activists and doctors, meeting with international policy makers could qualify.
While a federal judge in Washington issued a stay, temporarily blocking the order, Farida, says it seems unlikely that she will be able to reapply in time to make the trip.
The Syrian American Medical Society, which sponsored the trip, is still trying to convince the U.S. to reverse course — though its spokeswoman, Lobna Hassairi, told FP “we still don’t know” whether they will be able to secure the visas.
Britain, which is organizing the Syrian briefing, is still confident that “Syrian voices” will address the Security Council later this month, according to British official.
In an interview from Sarmeen, Idlib, on WhatsApp, Dr. Tennari said the failure to allow doctors and independent observers to address the Security Council would deprive the world’s key powers to receive an evenhanded picture of events on the ground.
“It’s not fair,” he told FP. “The [Syrian] regime has their ambassador there and [the Security Council] is all the time hearing what the regime is saying. But they must hear what is really happening.”
Photo Credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images