the Middle East and North Africa, health workers have provided medical
care in almost every pro-democracy movement since the Arab Spring began.
Increasingly, they are paying for it with their freedom, their blood,
and their lives.
When demonstrators occupied Egypt's Tahrir Square, local health workers set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby mosque.
There, among dividers made from hanging prayer mats, Egyptian doctors,
dentists, pharmacists, and others treated protestors injured by
everything from rocks to bullets, even as fighting raged nearby.
Libya, where demonstrations have escalated into full-scale civil war,
health workers, some of whom crossed over the border from Egypt to help
their revolutionary brethren, are on the frontlines. Doctors in the
besieged city of Misrata work in half-destroyed hospitals under threat
of artillery and snipers. In March, Gaddafi's forces reportedly attacked the city's main hospital,
which was said to contain 400 patients and medical staff inside at the
time. East of Misrata, health workers in rebel-held areas have built an improvised health system
for fighters and civilians alike. One Libyan doctor was training in
Atlanta, Georgia, when the civil war broke out. He returned home and now
works in the trauma hospital in Benghazi, the rebel capital.
In Yemen, when protestors turned the main square of Yemeni capital Sana'a into a tent city, health workers were there, setting up a field hospital in a local mosque. They continued to provide treatment even while security forces and regime supporters opened fire on thousands of protesters.
in the Syrian city of Daraa, where the government has launched a bloody
counterattack, using tanks against protestors in the town, health workers established a makeshift field hospital in a mosque to provide care. Elsewhere in the country, Syrian secret police have ordered health workers to not treat wounded protestors. Three doctors were arrested when they refused.
But this hasn't stopped health workers from serving their patients: now
doctors are reportedly treating people covertly inside private homes,
out of sight of the secret police.
Across the Middle East and
North Africa, health workers have put themselves at great personal risk
to provide medical care during democratic movements. But for the most
part, the world has stood aside while doctors, nurses, dentists, medical
students, and other medical professionals have been arrested, beaten,
wounded, and killed. What does it say about the United States when
Bahrain's unprecedented crackdown against health workers occurs just
miles from the home of the U.S. 5th Fleet?
International law has
long enshrined special protections for health workers in war. But, what
about the civil unrest seen during the Arab Spring? "Even if the
situation isn't clearly an armed conflict" said Dr. Stephanie Carvin,
Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of
London, "there are unambiguous international rules which would prohibit
the direct targeting of neutral ambulance workers and medical
The present legal protections are clearly not enough to keep these humanitarian workers safe.
The U.S. and international community must do more to protect health
workers, first by affirming the current protections for health workers
during war and second by strengthening the application of these
protections to all cases of political violence -- including the type of
government crackdowns seen during the Arab Spring. But simply
reinforcing legal protections will likely not be enough; they must be
backed by action. Seeing that doctors and nurses are no longer targeted
will require pressuring the offending governments -- such as those of
Yemen or Bahrain -- to stop persecuting health workers for doing their
jobs. We will likely never have a full accounting of the sacrifices made
by medical staff during the democratic protests movements. But we do
know that these unsung heroes of the Arab Spring continue to risk their
lives to provide medical care, and we should have their backs.