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Muhammad Darwish has been a dentist from the besieged town of Madaya, Syria. While many doctors in Syria fled from violence and systematic attacks on hospitals and medical personnel, Darwish chose to return to Madaya. As one of three remaining doctors serving a population of more than 40,000 people, Darwish was targeted and threatened by Syrian government forces on multiple occasions because of his humanitarian work. By meticulously documenting the conditions of his patients, many of whom are children, Darwish has brought international attention to the conditions in Madaya.
Trapped Inside a War Zone

Just miles from the Lebanon border, residents of a Syrian town are being deprived of food, water and shelter. The once idyllic mountain resort of Madaya has been under siege for the last two years, hemmed in by land mines and opposing Syrian forces. Its residents are starving to death due to food shortages. Amidst the suffering and violence, Muhammad Darwish is providing critical medical care and documenting the conditions of patients – many children – to call international attention to this besieged mountain town.

Madaya, a small town nestled in the Syrian mountains, was once known as a popular tourist destination. Prior to 2015, the town of approximately 40,000 people was home to Muhammad Darwish, a 26-year-old who was completing his studies and just one year away from graduating with a degree in dentistry.

But everything changed in the summer of 2015 when Madaya became the battleground for opposing Syrian forces. Many residents were forced to flee, abandoning their homes and possessions. Those who remained were surrounded by 14,000 landmines and continuously targeted by snipers and bombs. Life as they knew it had been shattered.

Muhammad returned to Madaya from university, where he faced scenes of destruction. Its familiar streets were strewn with bodies blown apart and the blood of victims. Those left behind created echoes with their piercing wails of grief. Many thousands were injured, and most of the doctors had fled or been arrested. Muhammad was driven to volunteer, and his background in dentistry allowed him to help where he could.

“It was my duty to my home, to my town and its people,” says Muhammad. “These individuals were family, friends, normal people with normal lives, and this war had torn them apart. Imagine the raw cry of a child whose own blood is mixed with the tears on his face, and try to do nothing. I couldn’t. I had to act.”

“Normally you would have a team of highly trained and experienced anesthetists, surgeons, nurses. I told this patient’s parents we were not qualified or even trained, and they told us to do it anyway.

At first there was a doctor from whom Muhammad was able to learn. But that doctor left at the beginning of 2016. His learning then came exclusively via WhatsApp, the international text messaging application. He remembers the first surgery he performed. “It was abdominal,” recalls Muhammad. “Normally you would have a team of highly trained and experienced anesthetists, surgeons, nurses. I told this patient’s parents we were not qualified or even trained, and they told us to do it anyway. That conversation will stay with me forever. To be in a position where you have to let someone without proper training operate on your son, and for me to take on that responsibility of opening up a living, breathing man on the table, it just shouldn’t have to happen.”

Muhammad performed the operation, at every stage taking pictures of what was happening and sending them to volunteer doctors abroad via WhatsApp. Every time, he would have to leave the room, send the pictures, wait for a response, then return to re-sterilize and re-enter the operating theater. Thanks to Muhammad and the team, that operation was a success – as were the many others that followed in the months and years ahead.

The suffering in Madaya hasn’t ended with casualties from the violent fighting. By the end of 2016, the town was also suffering from famine. Today, people are slowly starving to death. Infants need milk, newborns have died without the nourishment they need, and many have resorted to eating wild plants and insects.

Muhammad confirms that while some international aid gets through, it is limited to rice, groats beans – all carbohydrates. This has led to kwashiorkor – a severe form of malnutrition – caused by a lack of protein and other essential nutrients.

“The disease claimed 600 child victims, three of whom died,” says Muhammad. “We tried to treat it, but then the meningitis followed, claiming more lives. This is in addition to around 100 patients that come to the hospital every day with injuries caused by shelling and snipers. There is only so much we can do without vital medicines and materials, and support is still non-existent. Even when it does get through, it is often not what we need.”

For two years now there has been no electricity, no gas, no wood. Madaya is at a high altitude where it is cold and it snows. Those who remain have broken up furniture and used it to build fires, but now there is nothing left. The hospital is operating in impossible conditions.

“The siege is suffocating. It is constant and total. It must end. We need help. Financial, moral, physical protection – we need to give this town a future,” he said.

After months of living under siege, Muhammad and Thousands of others were evacuated from Madaya. While their evacuation was sparked by the devastating images of starving children sent to the international community by Muhammad and his medical colleagues in January of last year, it did not come in time to save 28 residents – including six babies – who have just recently starved to death.

“One day, I will retrain and I will come back here again to serve the people, properly,” says Muhammad. “One day, I will get my qualifications, and I will be a real, experienced practitioner – not someone forced by circumstance to experiment.”