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Reporting war crimes, even when they go unpunished

  • Bilge Nesibe Kotan
  • 17 Jul 2019

A doctor who keeps a record of brutal airstrikes in Syria, despite knowing that nothing has been done to stop them, tells TRT World why he continues his work.

A wounded man receives medical treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime's airstrikes hit Kafr Battikh town, which is a de-escalation zone in Idlib, Syria on July 9, 2019. ( TRTWorld )

Mohammed Katoub, a former dentist, has been documenting the human rights violations in Syria religiously for seven years. When one of the most brutal chemical attacks of the Syrian war hit his hometown eastern Ghouta on July 21, 2013, it was his wife’s birthday. He spent it documenting every single detail for a local human rights organisation in Ghouta, contacting the UN’s Damascus office, and repeating what happened to journalists on the phone over and over again. The Syrian regime was largely blamed for the poisonous sarin gas that killed hundreds of people that day. 

On July 10 this year, when Katoub received the news in his office in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep that one of the hospitals in Syria’s Idlib was hit by regime airstrikes, he called his wife. “Sorry, I won’t be coming for dinner,” he said. 

Now the Advocacy Manager of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), he needs to coordinate with the medical staff in Syria whenever they’re hit and report every single detail to the UN -- even though the UN’s role in the process hasn’t changed much since the Ghouta massacre.

Condemnations of attacks by the UN have largely avoided pointing the finger at the Syrian regime, Katoub says.

Its joint mission’s report with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), on the Ghouta massacre took five years and 18 visits to Syria. It finally concluded in 2018 that the regime’s evidence wasn’t sufficient to prove that it didn’t carry out the attack. It didn’t lead to any kind of accountability for the massacre.

In 2018, the last remaining opposition stronghold, Idlib was awaiting a final assault by the regime after the fall of eastern Ghouta in April. Having witnessed a brutal siege and relentless air campaign before fleeing his city of Ghouta, Katoub knew a humanitarian disaster was approaching.

So he and the other advocates discussed options with the local medical staff and decided to share the locations of some medical facilities with the UN -- a risky move that could either bring protection, or result badly. 

It resulted badly. The UN was supposed to share the locations with the Syrian regime and its allies, so they wouldn’t target the medical facilities.

“Since then, there have been 35 attacks on the health facilities and 12 of those the ones we shared their coordinates with the OCHA (the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) to protect those facilities. But on the contrary, those facilities were targeted,” Katoub told TRT World

The Syrian regime and its allies have capacity find the locations of the medical facilities,  especially hospitals, as they track down ambulances, he says. 

But Katoub remembers one medical primary health facility in the southern countryside of Aleppo was being hit after sharing its location, despite it could not be found by following the ambulances. 

“There is no emergency room in this facility but in spite of that, after sharing the coordinates, it was attacked. It was never targeted before sharing its coordinates,” he says. 

“The medical staff don't believe that the mechanism of the UN is to protect them. On the contrary, it's causing more damage,” he says. 

A Syrian doctor on the other side of the line, Doctor Tarraf al Tarraf, a urologist, no longer trusts the UN. 

“The truth is, me and my colleagues felt it was wrong to share our position with the United Nations because the latter it shared them with Russia, it made us an easy target,” he tells TRT World. Four rockets hit his hospital directly. 

The hospital where he works in Maarat al Nouman, is a national hospital -- nowhere close to a military position. Fearing for his family’s life, he sent his wife and three children to a remote village bordering Turkey, assuring them that he will be fine because the hospital was under UN protection. 

The hospital has damaged badly, but no one was killed in his hospital on the day of the airstrikes. However, in another hospital in Jisr al Shughour, one of his colleagues died.

It is not the first time that hospitals have been targeted after sharing the coordinates with the UN, so Katoub says the medical community decided to keep their location secret when using a new facility as they have long since lost hope that this approach will work.

He is overwhelmed by the fact that there was no investigation launched by the UN this time either, even though the Syrian regime violated its own mechanisms. 

“No single investigation, not even a report from OCHA condemning the perpetrators directly,” he says. But still, he gets ready to file another report to the UN after hours of talks back and forth with the medical staff in Syria. OCHA is the only UN body they report to at the moment, but Katoub says the negotiations are ongoing with the UN to include an investigative body to the process. 

“We believe the UN still has some tools that it didn’t use all this time. We will keep pressuring with the report because they didn’t use all the pressure that it could to pressure the Syrian regime yet,” he says. 

“Every detail matters and must be recorded. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or not next month but maybe one day, we still hope there will be accountability.” 

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