Jacques Beres, a war surgeon who smuggled himself into Homs in 2012 to help the Syrian people, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Saba Farzan: Hello. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Because we are the last panel of this conference, I would like to take the opportunity before introducing the topic and then our panelists, to thank Hillel Ariel, and everyone at UN Watch for organizing this conference and bringing all of us together here with great energy.
Hillel mentioned it. Í’m a German-Iranian journalist. I focus mostly on Iran, but I also do deal a lot with what is happening in Syria. Not very often as a journalist, who is dealing with words, who is trying to write in sentences in debates and in comments, I have been speechless about what is going on in the world. And in this particular case, with the human tragedy unfolding for over now a year in Syria, I am speechless about the silence of the world. My good friend Ibrahim mentioned that there is a resemblance between the silence toward Iran since the summer of 2009 and toward the silence in Syria since one year. When the Arab Spring started exactly a year ago, a lot of hopes and dreams were combined with that unprecedented change that was happening in the middle eastern region. We were all hoping that this is the beginning of democracy in that region and it [would] lead to a peaceful coexistence and true tolerance among the nations of the Middle East. And I do believe that it is the beginning of democracy in the long term. But, I do also see a lot of concerns and a lot of risks in the particular case of Syria. Unfortunately, Í’m observing that right now the assessment is [that] the Assad regime in Syria is severely weakened. Let’s continue with it that way. If that assessment is going to continue, what will be sacrificed for that superficial security will be human rights and democracy in Syria.
So our panel is going to address, in particular, human rights violations and the prospect of democracy in the Syrian country. And our young Syrian activists will join us hopefully shortly. In the meantime, we will listen all together to Dr. Jacques Beres, who is a war surgeon for four decades and is one of the co-founders of Doctors Without Borders and Doctors Of The World. He has just spent time in Homs, in the city of Homs, and delivered medication and provided medical assistance at the request of France-Syria Democracy and the Union Of Muslim Association in France. We’re very fortunate that he will now speak to us about what he has observed in the city of Homs and what he think[s] should be the consequences about what is happening in Syria. Mr. Beres, thank you very much for being with us and the floor is yours.
Jacques Beres: Bonjour, good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, dear friends of human rights. I’d like to thank the organizers for having invited me. I will be explaining my experience to you in Homs and it’s a great pleasure and honor for me and the NGOs who have mandated me. I will speaking to you with a great deal of pleasure and as much objectivity as possible.
I’m rather frustrated, I’m rather unhappy, because I’m one of the last speakers. I’ve [been] here since the morning; I had six interviews during the day and I haven’t heard anything practically from the people who spoke before me. Ariel will be giving me the videos. I wasn’t able to hear the speakers before [me] because of the interviews. Before I speak to you about Homs, I’d like to take a bow to the true heroes of human rights who’ve spoken before me. I’m not at all sure that I personally would have had the courage to do what they did and then to bear witness to it. ‘
Now what I did was much more humble. I didn’t take risks or much fewer; all I was doing was carrying out my job as a humanitarian physician. Carrying out surgery in Homs was what I did in January 2012 and you can understand that this is something that has to be planned very carefully for it to be efficient and effective for security reasons. I was very eager to do so and to help in Homs and I started organizing it. I was given the mandate to do it by NGO organizations, that I will speak of later on, and I was asked to find partners who would be able to bring me in clandestinely to do my job of humanitarian surgery and relieve some of the suffering. Now there are a number of people who had respectable and well-known organizations who thought that they could help me to cross the border illegally. But for a number of different reasons, I didn’t have the sense that that was the best solution. Of course, I didn’t want to offend anyone because they were all potential partners and they were all very kind and perhaps very efficient.
But we did end up giving the mission to an organization known as AAVS, which was an association that provides aid to victims in Syria and they were wonderful. They got me across the border. Although their specialty is more to cross the Turkish border, they brought me across the Lebanese border because I wanted to go to Homs. This is 30 miles away from the Bellini’s border. And if I had gone through the Turkish border it was 250 kilometers and it was dangerous. I thought that was better. So I thought if I couldn’t get through it the first time, I would be able to evaluate the health unit structures that were set up a number of weeks ago in the North of Lebanon, in the Tripoli region in particular. So this organization AAVS was extremely efficient. We arrived at nine o’clock one night in Beirut and, just like one of the police films, I had a name, a phone number and a name, and they said I called and they said go to the airport, stay at the airport, we’ll pick you up. It was just like in a film; we changed cars so nobody would realize who we were, and we went to safe houses. We were given tea, we were welcomed, we were thanked for coming, and we changed cars again, just like in a film. I went on a motorcycle. It seems rather comic at my age, but that’s what it was and that’s how we got across the border illegally to Syria. It wasn’t easy, I didn’t sleep that night. But I arrived [in] Beirut at nine o’clock and I was in Syria the next morning so it was wonderful.
What I could say here is that the problem of the large NGOs who deal in medical matters, french NGOs are very frustrated because the zero risk goal means that they can’t send any of their French or English or European expats and cross illegal borders and carry out humanitarian aid, which we did in the beginning with French doctors. I was one of the co-founders of Doctors Without Borders and French Doctors, but it’s no longer being done. Perhaps it will be done again, and I have contact with these organizations. But what I did was all thanks to small organizations, France-Syria Democracy and a Muslim group. So it wasn’t the, perhaps a political line, but I trusted them. And there is a group in region 95 in France and I knew them and they trusted me; they had sent me to Libya last year.
So, I told you how I got into Syria and then we had to make it to Homs, that was a goal. We stopped [for] two days in al-Qusayr, halfway between the Lebanese border and Homs. And we were encircled. It was encircled but not being bombed and so it could be a relay point in both directions. And there again, it was like an adventure film. We had to go through a tunnel, three almost three kilometers long to get there. At times there was water flooding in, at times it was dry. But we even rode motorcycles. We had to drop, to duck our heads not to bump them.
We finally arrived in Homs near Baba Amr, which is a proper noun. And the rebels said to me that we couldn’t set up a health unit there because [it was] constantly under mortar attack. Any plan would be doomed to failure. So they suggested that we join a health unit held by Syrian doctors for a number of weeks, who are doing extraordinary work in a region near Baba Amr that is in inshot. Inshot was not yet falling under the bombs, it was at the end, but at the beginning, it was possible to work there and to receive the wounded. So I was authorized, because there’s no way that a french team would set up a health unit like that. We were nothing, it’s too temporary, we [were] only there for a short time, a few weeks. So doctors in Syria authorized me to work with them, and I do thank them because of course, they ran an additional risk because of my presence. It was a private home that had been turned into a hospital, which leads to a number of problems; they were technical problems. You’ll understand that in a private house, the front door is not very big and it’s hard to get the patients through and their families. And the entrance lobby is not the biggest room in the house, but that’s where the stretchers are placed and that’s where the first care is given. The kitchen, the toilets also, they’re not near the operation room or where sterilization takes place. The problem was not the great lack of medicine, it was more basic, water and electricity. We couldn’t wash our hands, we didn’t have brushes. We put alcohol on our hands and then we put on our gloves and we had a lack of electricity most of the day. So that was a problem for anesthesia, for the breathing mesh things, for lighting. For generators you need fuel, and when there’s no diesel, it’s a problem. Lighting: we just had normal bulbs and they did cast us a dim light, but we couldn’t orient them. We couldn’t focus them, we couldn’t target them, and the lights were head-on. So these are not the ideal conditions to work in. Of course the hygiene was deplorable, but the general conditions were terrible and we had to operate, so we did.
Personally, I operated on 89 wounded in 12 days. Nine died, a certain number died on the operation table, three, and others died the next day. The figures were not good, nine losing their life on the table and two others later, but we did the best we could. Now, these deaths could have been avoided under normal conditions. What I wanted to say, to wind up, is something small. First of all, the presence of a surgeon, an expat, from another world, from privileged Europe, is something that means that certain lives can be saved, but it’s really nothing, it’s a drop in the bucket. Believe me, I’m the one who could tell you. All I could operate on was 10 people. And in one mortar attack, more deaths are caused than anything that the physician could do. So it’s really a drop in the bucket as I said, but it should be done anyway for the very few lives that could possibly be saved. The families, thank you, they’re happy, and concerning the thanks they give us, they’re wonderful. The victims give the best of themselves, they thank you, they’re grateful. And what’s even more moving, they thank you even when the operation was unsuccessful then it was successful. So this technical procedure that we carry out is more than that it’s a symbol of solidarity, a brotherhood. This is in a hell, there are incessant mortar attacks that start at six o’clock in the morning and stop at nightfall. They’re not big bombs, they’re mortars. But there’s a great deal of fragmentation and they send bits of metal into people’s bodies and kill people. I’ve seen many, many bodies. old people, women, children in the main. It’s truly hell; it’s mass murder. It should be said here. I apologize. It’s mass murder. It’s totally unfair. I apologize. It’s unjustifiable. We should do whatever we can to make it stop.
That’s it. That’s what I wanted to tell you. I apologize. I’m sorry. It was hard. It’s an extraordinary memory however. All they want is their freedom. They have the right to it like all peoples do, even more because they’re fighting so hard for it. And we have to do what we can to help them. I’m sorry.
4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Victim Testimonies Q&A, Tuesday, March 13, 2012