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In 2017, I visited the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun two days after it was hit by a chemical attack by the Syrian regime. After visiting the site of the attack, I went to a local hospital that had received many of the victims but that was evacuated because it came under sustained aerial bombardment shortly after the attack. Locals and militias, who had endured bombing by both the Assad regime and the Russians over the months since Moscow had intervened in the war, believed Russian jets had carried out the attack on the hospital.
The hospital had been built into the side of a hill to shield it from occasional bombing, but it didn’t seem like it made a huge difference. Shattered glass was everywhere, medicines strewn about the floor, equipment destroyed, the hallways darkened. A sanctum of healing had been transformed into a death trap for people who were dying in one of the most painful and horrifying ways known to man.
Everything about the assault on the hospital was savage and barbaric, but the part that was most emblematic of its depravity was a collapsed shed that lay across the entrance in the courtyard. Paramedics had placed the bodies of deceased victims there while they tended to those still drawing breath. The bombing caused the shed’s roof to collapse on those who were already dead. One local said it was as though they died twice that day.
I recalled the images from that day in my mind when I woke up to news on Thursday of Russia bombing a children and maternity hospital in Ukraine’s Mariupol on Wednesday. Three people, including a child, 6, were reportedly killed in the attack and over a dozen were wounded. We have of course continued to cover Ukraine at New Lines, bringing you exclusive features and reportage from the ground (you can find all the latest stories here). This particular war crime struck a nerve, though.
The outrage over this cruelty is justified, but the surprise and shock is not. Russia has been bombing hospitals for over six years in Syria, and the Mariupol bombing is a grim reminder of this legacy of impunity, coming just a few days before the 11th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. According to Physicians for Human Rights, an NGO that tracks attacks on health care around the world, from March 2011 to June 2021 there were at least 600 separate attacks on health care facilities in Syria, the overwhelming majority of which were carried out by the Syrian government or forces allied with it. From 2016 onward, this includes the Russians — at least 244 attacks since then have been carried out by either Russian or Syrian forces.
Many of these attacks were not simply bombing runs over hospitals either. Some were so-called “double-tap” strikes, where an initial attack would be followed up a few minutes later with another to maximize the killing of civilians and rescue workers, a tactic that the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda both used in suicide bombings.
Imagine if the tragedy of Mariupol had occurred more than 600 times. That is far beyond the point at which you’d start calling an attack part of a systematic campaign, when war crimes become crimes against humanity. When bombing hospitals becomes a war strategy.
It is difficult to overstate the cruelty of hospital bombings, because the cruelty is the point. A place of healing and salves, to take refuge from pain, or to welcome new life, turned into a slaughterhouse. It is a betrayal of immense gravity precisely because of how vulnerable you are in a hospital. It is indecency incarnate.
The reason it happens and continues to happen is that it is not punished. Russia paid no price for carrying out and abetting the Syrian regime’s systematic crimes against humanity when together they bombed 600 hospitals. Customary international law holds only if nations adhere to these customs and are punished for transgressing them. It is customary now to bomb hospitals, largely thanks to Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad.
We’ll have to do more than sit on our laurels if we don’t want 600 Mariupols.
From this week (Saturday Mar. 5 – Friday Mar. 11, 2022)
‘Warsha’: A Bird’s-Eye View of Beirut | Read more
Syrian Kitchens Come to Life in the Winter | Read more
Podcast | Writing a Revolution: Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising — with Kalani Pickhart | Listen now
Irpin’s Bridge of Death | Read more
The Second Most Powerful Man In Russia | Read more
Hard Choices for Those Fleeing Within Ukraine | Read more
Russia’s Ex-Foreign Minister on His ‘Totalitarian’ Country | Read more
A Mixed Bag for Black Ukraine Refugees | Read more
Ukraine’s Insurgency-in-Waiting | Read more
Poles Step Up for Ukraine Refugees | Read more
The Shame of Afghan Sanctions | Read more
How Russia’s Conquest of Ukraine Went Sideways | Read more