By Anne Barnard
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The hospital in the northern Syrian town of Maarat al-Noaman was not just grazed, or damaged, by the airstrikes last week. It was destroyed, taking a direct hit that pancaked its three stories into one, entombing and killing 25 people, including nine staff members.
It was struck at around 9:02 a.m., just as day-shift workers and patients were arriving; then again at around 9:05. As rescuers swarmed around, another explosion struck at 9:45, and another at 9:48. That same morning, two airstrikes hit the National Hospital on the other side of town, which was treating nurses injured in the attack on the first facility.
This detailed account, provided by the director of the hospital, which was supported by Doctors Without Borders, is one example of why many Syrian medical workers in insurgent-held areas and human rights groups believe medical facilities are not just being hit by stray bombs or indiscriminate attacks, but have long been deliberately targeted by the Syrian government and its Russian allies. It is a measure of the deep mistrust that gravely challenges prospects for a truce set to begin Saturday.
According to Doctors Without Borders, there were 94 attacks last year alone on 67 hospitals and clinics the group supports in insurgent-held areas from northern to southern Syria, destroying 12 facilities and killing 23 staff members. In 2016, there have already been 17 attacks on health facilities, including six assisted by the group.
Russian and Syrian officials deny having ever deliberately targeted civilians.
But allegations over the targeting of medical workers go back much farther. As early as 2011, Amnesty International was reporting detentions of health workers who treated injured protesters, arrests of patients inside hospitals, and other practices designed to keep clinicians from treating all patients regardless of what side they were on.
The group Physicians for Human Rights has counted 346 attacks on medical facilities, with 705 staff members killed, since the Syrian uprising began with largely peaceful protests in 2011. It says that more than 90 percent of the attacks were by Syrian government forces or their allies, but notes that insurgent groups, including some supported by the West, have also been responsible for such attacks.
At least 58 health facilities have been hit by ordnance multiple times — including major hospitals like Dar al-Shifa Hospital in insurgent-held Aleppo — several of which were eventually destroyed or forced to close. At least 45 facilities struck were “in isolated areas, far from any other buildings, providing additional evidence of the intentional nature of these attacks,” the Physicians for Human Rights report states