A Surgeon's Call to Duty: Dr. Jacques Bérès, a 71-year old French surgeon, smuggled himself into Homs, Syria, to treat the wounded in a makeshift hospital.
Monday, March 12, 2012
Syria’s Carnage, As Seen By A French Doctor
By MAÏA de la BAUME from Paris
At the age of 71, Dr. Jacques Bérès, a veteran of war zones, left his comfortable Paris life last month to smuggle himself into Homs, the center of the Syrian revolt, to tend to the wounded and the sick.
Working in secret, in a dark, abandoned house, with only one operating table, three beds, four local aides and intermittent electricity, Dr. Bérès operated on 89 people, he said; all but nine survived.
Dr. Bérès, a surgeon with a thin white beard who was part of the group that founded Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, appears to be the only Western doctor who has been able to enter Homs, where security forces have been carrying out a brutal assault. His account offers a rare glimpse at the medical emergency that has developed as the Syrian conflict rages on.
His journey into Syria began in early February when he crossed the Lebanese border with the help of smugglers, carrying luggage filled with medical equipment. He then traveled by car and motorbike to Al Qusayr, another besieged city that is part of Homs Province, where he worked for a few days with a Syrian doctor. When he finally made it to Homs, he spent about two weeks there.
In Homs, he was forced to move once — “I sensed that the building had become a target for government forces” — and conditions were far from ideal. “The place was so crowded that we had to walk between the stretchers,” Dr. Bérès said in an interview late last month in his Paris apartment, just days after returning.
“I treated all kinds of wounds, from heavy mortars, shots from long-range sniper rifles, high-velocity rounds, shrapnel,” he said. His makeshift hospital was only a few minutes from Baba Amr, the neighborhood that saw some of the heaviest shelling and fighting.
One day, he said, 11 people died in his hospital, some before he could even begin to treat them. “Some of them had brain damage and arrived already dead,” Dr. Bérès said. “Others were so severely injured that they could not be saved.”
Many of his patients were minors, he said. At least 400 children have died since the beginning of the uprising, according to Unicef.
He was clearly affected by the death of a teenage boy, “who had pale skin, handsome features, a slightly mischievous look and a cap on his head which made him look like Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s ‘Misérables.’ ” The boy, Dr. Bérès said, “had almost been cut into two.”
Dr. Bérès left Syria before the government began its all-out assault on Homs in late February. “I was sad,” he told the French radio network RTL after his return to Paris. “I saw useless suffering, cruelty, meanness, the suffering of children, of families.”
But those who worked with him described Dr. Bérès as a remarkable man, and praised his composure and quiet energy in the face of suffering and death.
“We went through very tense moments,” said Nicolas Hénin, a video journalist and a friend of Dr. Bérès who filmed him on the first days of his mission in Al Qusayr. “But while everyone around him got agitated, Dr. Bérès remained extremely calm, as if all this agitation didn’t affect him.”
Dr. Bérès’s trip to Syria was partly sponsored by two associations: France-Syria Democracy and UAM93, a federation of Muslim associations in Seine-St.-Denis, an area in the Paris suburbs largely populated by immigrants. Dr. Bérès said the participation of the Muslim federation was crucial.
But gaining its support was not easy. “I was strongly against this trip,” said M’hammed Henniche, the director of UAM93, who said he thought it was too risky. “But Dr. Bérès insisted so much that we finally paid for his ticket and begged him to keep his mouth shut during his stay.”
Mr. Henniche said that Dr. Bérès left because he could no longer cope with the violence and harsh living conditions in Homs, including the lack of hot water and electricity, and because he was exhausted from treating so many patients. “We also thought that he had to escape before the city was entirely besieged,” he added.
Dr. Bérès described weeks of tension and sleepless nights; he struggled with the noise of bombardments, cold weather, mud in the streets, a lack of food and a shortage of child-size masks for anesthesia. He said there was not enough equipment to allow for anything but the most basic treatments.
“Some people walked out of the hospital with bandages that had barely stopped the flow of blood, only three hours after they had been operated upon,” he said.
But he also emphasized the professionalism of his aides and the character of the Syrian opposition, as well as the spirit of solidarity among the city’s residents.
“The members of the opposition are formidable,” Dr. Bérès said. “They’re very smart, they’re very, very motivated, their morale is very strong regardless of what happens to them.”
Donations of blood, which are often difficult to obtain in war zones, “never caused us any trouble,” the doctor said. “There was almost a line of people ready to offer their blood.”
Born in 1941 and married twice, Dr. Bérès learned battlefield surgery in Vietnam in 1967 at the French hospital in Saigon where he did his military service. Surgery was primitive, Dr. Bérès said, and some doctors were reluctant to use techniques “often inherited from the First World War.”
He was among the dozen or so co-founders of Doctors Without Borders in 1971 and of a similar group, Doctors of the World, in 1980. He has spent more than 40 years in some of the most dangerous war zones around the world, experiencing conflicts in Vietnam, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq and most recently Libya.
“In Baghdad, I used to operate on people with an aide hanging an oil lamp over my shoulder,” Dr. Bérès said.
He said he wanted to return to Homs because the need was great and international aid was meager.
“I don’t know what the future of Syria will look like,” Dr. Bérès said. “But I admire the Syrians so much.”
-This article was published in the New York Times on 12/03/2012