'The world has blood of the Syrian people on its hands'
ONE OF the most troubling scenes veteran French war surgeon Jacques Beres witnessed during a recent trip to Syria was the aftermath of government shelling of a bakery queue in Aleppo, the northern city convulsed by fighting between the regime and rebels.
Many of the casualties were brought to the small hospital in a rebel-held district where Beres, co-founder of medical charity Médecins Sans Frontìeres, was working clandestinely, having been smuggled over the border with Turkey.
Among the dead was the baker himself, whose clothes had been blown off by the blast.
“He was an old man and his thin, almost nude body was completely covered in white flour apart from the bright red of the blood where he had been hit by shrapnel,” Beres recalls.
“It was a strange and disturbing image.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces dropped bombs and fired artillery at or near at least 10 bakeries in Aleppo province over a three-week period in August, killing and maiming scores of civilians who were waiting for bread. One such attack in Aleppo city killed up to 60 people and wounded more than 70. Another, five days later, killed at least 23 people and wounded 30.
Beres has operated in war zones, including Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq, for 40 years, but he says the carnage in Syria is among the most horrific he has ever seen.
His visit to Aleppo was his third to Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March last year. He smuggled himself into the besieged city of Homs for two weeks in February, setting up a makeshift hospital in a family home, where he operated on 89 wounded, many of them elderly or children, over 12 days. He saved most of them, but nine died on the operating table. He describes what regime forces did in Homs as “mass murder”.
In May the 71-year-old Parisian travelled around the restive province of Idlib, and last month he slipped into Aleppo as fighting there intensified.
“It’s an asymmetric conflict,” Beres says of the battle for Aleppo. “The regime fights with helicopters, tanks and even jet planes, and the are defending their free zone with little more than old Kalashnikovs. I did not see one weapon coming from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, although at the end of my time there I began to see some heavy machine guns fixed on pick-up trucks on the rebel side.”
Based on his own experience on the ground, Beres believes the death toll in Syria is higher than what is reported.
He says the names of the dead at the Aleppo hospital he volunteered in were “written by hand in a little book which remained in the hospital”, and he doubted the numbers reached external sources.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, has calculated that at least 28,000 have been killed since the revolt began last year.
“I think the number is far more than that,” Beres says. “It might even have reached 50,000.”
In the two weeks he spent in Aleppo, Beres treated, on average, 20-45 injured people each day. The majority were fighters with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is dominated by army defectors, but there were also jihadists, some of them foreigners, espousing a more radical vision for Syria’s future.
“In Homs I did not see one jihadist or Salafist, but in Aleppo I saw many,” says Beres.
“Some of the jihadists want Syria to become a state based on sharia law, others just want to go to the frontline because they want to die and go to paradise. The FSA are wary of the jihadists, they don’t trust them, and they send them to the frontline.”
Beres argues that this growing jihadist dynamic can be blamed on inaction by the international community.
“The main reason why the jihadists are coming, and why the Salafists will probably have influence after Assad falls, is that nobody else has helped the Syrian people.
Nobody from the West has helped and that is a shame,” he says.
“I think we should have given the Syrian people weapons a long time ago. It is so unfair to let the regime of Bashar al-Assad slaughter his own people.
“The world has the blood of the Syrian people on its hands,” he says.
Beres says he was motivated to smuggle himself into Syria at great personal risk out of a sense of “humanitarian duty to heal” no matter how dangerous the environment.
“I was so impressed by the bravery of these people holding peaceful demonstrations every Friday for months, and I was so shocked that the regime was killing them with heavy weapons just for walking in the streets,” he says.
“I, along with some other doctors, felt it was our humanitarian duty to come and work with these people, to be with them under the bombing for the sake of solidarity.”