Saleyha Ahsan

Abbas Khan's death in Syria cell should not be in vain

Posted by Saleyha Ahsan on 20 December 2013 | 0 Comments

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Dr Abbas Khan's death in detention this week is yet another tragic headline to digest within the tapestry of the Syrian war. I cannot begin to imagine the last 13 months of his life. How it must feel to find yourself detained in a cell, starved and tortured, for essentially being a humanitarian.

What happened to him could have happened to any of us who work in war zones in the name of humanity. I worked as a doctor on the ground in Syria in December 2012, then returned this summer and was filmed for the BBC Panorama programme Saving Syria's Children.

Similarly, Khan went out to practise medicine in its purest form – working in a place where there is dire need, where the work of a doctor makes the difference between life and death. And yet in his effort and commitment to the exact code of the Hippocratic oath, he paid with his life.

No one knows for sure what happened in that cell. I do not believe the regime line that Khan killed himself. I do not actually believe many things that come out of Damascus. Much of it has been manipulated for propaganda purposes, which is then swallowed and regurgitated by those that have never been out there.

The Syrian regime has singlehandedly dismantled standards to the extent that denying access to healthcare to the sick and wounded fails to shock. It just happens. A UN team, led by the Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, stated in a report published earlier this year that the deliberate targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria is being used as a "weapon of war". The report said: "The pattern of attacks indicates that government forces deliberately targeted hospitals and medical units to gain military advantage by depriving anti-government armed groups and their perceived supporters of medical assistance." Intentionally directing attacks against hospital facilities containing the sick and wounded, or against entities carrying the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem is a war crime in a non-international armed conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been running a campaign called Healthcare in Danger and recently held a one-day conference on the subject at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. Syrian doctors attending spoke out about the attacks that they have been persistently subject to. There are countless examples and yet accountability is still lacking.

It is no longer safe to be a doctor in Syria and with the third anniversary of the conflict approaching in March 2014, the situation is only getting worse. In October the UN published a presidential statement calling for greater humanitarian access. But there has been a disappointing response on the ground with little signs of improvement. The statement fell short of the much hoped for binding resolution.

Assad himself trained as a doctor – and now we have a British doctor dead in a cell. We went there as doctors and tried to fill the massive gaps in a fractured healthcare service. We risked our lives to bring elements of humanity to a place where humanity has been smothered. Abbas Khan's death should not be in vain.

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