Syria: Having a Caesarean Performed by…a Dentist

“I’m forever blowing bubbles…”

All of us remember the horrifying picture of a 3 year old Syrian boy found lying on a beach. The scene epitomised the situation for ordinary people in Syria. But he and others are no ordinary people. We are.

We, including myself, all live in our protected personal bubbles and are only temporarily affected by the atrocities and suffering that occur around us. As a society, we observe the outside from the warmth and comfort of our own bubble, too frightened to intervene once and for all. When thousands of these extraordinary people flee their country in sheer desperation, risking their own lives in doing so, our only reaction is to want to refuse them entry, lest our bubble should burst.

Our anguish is that of freedom. The Syrians’ anguish is that of living in Syria.

I didn’t ask to be born in Europe, in peacetime. I just was, and that’s the “luck of the draw”. For the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, being born with freedom is the one thing that life imposes on us all. Whether we like it or not, it’s then up to us to “decide” what sort of life we are going to live. It’s the “having to take decisions” bit that fills our lives with anxiety and doubt. In the same way, the thousands of young Syrians didn’t ask to be born in Syria, they just were. They are paying the price for mistakes made at the highest level both there and here in the West; mistakes based on unfounded religious fanaticism and intolerance, together with self-vested financial and political interests of Western governments. But the fact that Arab governments come and go, directly or indirectly helped by foreign powers and businesses, does not reflect the true atrocious and inhumane nature of the whole situation prevailing in the Arab world. The true stories, the ones that should affect you and me to the bone, come from men, women and children who try and lead ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.

This is one such story. It relates the incredible situation a Syrian dentist finds himself in. Obviously I don’t know him personally, but that doesn’t stop me from identifying with him so strongly that, after having read his story, I immediately sent money to a help-for-Syria organisation here in the Netherlands. This man is, to all intents and purposes, a colleague of mine. We practice the same profession and, if Lady Luck had turned the other way, he could have been born in the UK, and I in Syria.


“People in Madaya are dying in slow motion.”

Muhammad Darwish, 26, is a Syrian dentist who lives in Madaya, a small mountain town located in Syria’s Idlib province, near the Lebanese border. The town has been under siege by pro-government forces for 18 months, and is encircled by 12.000 landmines and 65 guard positions manned by the Syrian army, making any approach practically impossible. Up to 40,000 people are being trapped in the area and literally starved to death. According to local sources, “people are dying in slow motion”. Muhammad works with a veterinarian, and together they are the only 2 people left who are capable of offering any kind of medical attention to the severely injured and starving. They were taught rudimentary basics by a group of doctors who has since left the region. The account of the current situation is Madaya is dramatic, heartbreaking and above all else, deeply disturbing. Basic medical necessities, including anaesthetics, are practically non-existent, and the hospital itself is located in a makeshift building.


“We phoned the Red Cross but they didn’t come.”

The only help available is via a WhatsApp group comprising Syrian-American doctors from the USA, and even then, the connection cannot take place inside the “operating room” due to lack of internet signal. The presence of the group is of great importance. For difficult operations, Muhammad sends photos of the situation and obtains direct help from his American colleagues. This occurred recently when they had to perform a laparotomy in order to remove a gunshot bullet. Muhammad and his colleague had contacted the Red Cross in the hope that the casualty would be transferred in order to receive adequate treatment, but the help never arrived.

Many of the operations are carried out on landmine victims who have to be amputated. However, a significant number of caesarean sections are also carried out because many women are too weak to give birth naturally.

It is quite incredible that although the UN officials were aware of the preoccupying situation in and around Madaya, the town was not listed as one of the besieged areas in the UN’s 2015 report on the application of the Security Council’s resolutions concerning Syria. The town was only at the beginning of 2016 listed and became eligible for aid. According to Muhammad, even today, the arrival of a humanitarian convoy remains a sporadic event.

For this young dentist, turned into a makeshift surgeon, there is no possibility of leaving Madaya, even if he wanted to. The odds of him being killed or maimed in attempting to flee the region are too high. He has seen too many die or become invalids in attempting to escape from this nightmare. His courage is there for everyone to see.

For now we are staying here and surviving. But don’t ask me how. It’s a miracle. – Muhammad Darwish


Maybe it’s time for our Western societies to burst our bubble and see what is really happening every single day in Syria and elsewhere.



NOS (in Dutch, but English spoken in video),

UN report 2015

The Guardian Feb 2016