Syrian doctor tells torture victims’ story
A young Syrian doctor who fled the country after providing health care to hundreds of people wounded in the grassroots uprising told his story for the first time in early March at a gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (UUF) in Eureka Springs. For people in the audience, it was one of the most powerful – and disturbing – talks they had ever heard. It brought into personal focus frequent news stories about the conflict that has caused worldwide concern for the estimated 70,000 deaths and four million people displaced and homeless.
Taymour Karim was a fifth-year medical resident in oncology when the uprising began two years ago after government soldiers started shooting pro-democracy protesters. He started his presentation with a summary of the complicated political and ethnic situation leading up to the uprising, trying to convey how different it is from the United States. For example, he grew up having only ever had one president of his country. Hafez al-Assad was president of the country from 1970 until he died in 2000, after which his son, Bashar al-Assad, took over.
Syria has been a dictatorship ruled by the Ba’ath Party for 50 years, and many people wanted a change. But Taymour said no one he knew wanted war. “We just wanted respect,” he said. “We just wanted freedom.”
Taymour never expected to speak out against the government. His passion was for practicing medicine, not politics. He spoke of the beginnings of the Arab Spring, how the pro democracy movement came to Syria starting with graffiti by schoolboys in the small town of Daraa. In March 2011, after Syrian Army protesters opened fire on unarmed demonstrators who were seeking to topple the regime, peaceful demonstrations spread across nearly all of Syria.
As a healer, Taymour faced a difficult choice day by day. Thousands of people were being wounded, but those showing up at the state-run hospital were often arrested and tortured. That led Taymour into joining protesters to provide medical care in hidden places, sometimes in caves, with only handsful of supplies for thousands of patients.
“For the first time in my life, when I was thirty, I finally said ‘No’ to the government,” he said.
Although he was giving life-saving care under difficult conditions, his work put his life at risk from the government. When he became aware security forces were looking for him, he moved out of the apartment he shared with his wife, Sirin Duman, a dentist from Turkey.
One of the more moving parts of his presentation was his arrest by government forces. Taymour showed how he was blindfolded and his hands tied behind his back, several of his ribs broken, and then being handed his cell phone. To stop the torture, he was to call comrades working with him and ask them to meet him – so they could also be arrested.
But Taymour dialed the number and told his friends he had been arrested. It was extraordinary for a detainee to do that while under interrogation.
Taymour left the podium a couple of times as it was so difficult to tell his story. And it was something he had earlier never imagined, to be free to speak out about the atrocities that will haunt him and millions of other Syrians for their lifetimes. Speaking freely would never have been allowed in Syria before the uprising.
Several times he spoke of the 4,000,000 people who are homeless and displaced as a result of regime violence. Conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries are very difficult with inadequate food and shelter, yet thousands more refugees are pouring out of the country daily. Taymour spoke again and again of the estimated 70,000 people who have been killed, and more than 100,000 people who are imprisoned or missing – including some of his friends and fellow medical workers.
He showed photos of the cave hospital where he worked, and photos of victims of torture waiting for treatment. Many in the audience had a hard time looking at these extremely disturbing photos.
Burnetta Hintertheur, a plant biology professor at Northwest Arkansas Community College, brought Taymour to Eureka Springs for the Sunday presentation. She said it was the most disturbing and moving talk she has heard anywhere.
“I think it just hit me because it is impossible to understand how human beings can be so cruel to each other, so greedy, so selfish and uncaring as the regime in Syria,” Hintertheur said. “Yet, we know that our U.S. bombs hit families and kill children. We don’t see these things and it is easy for them to just not be in our minds at all. But, as Taymour said, truth is often not pretty.”
Hintertheur said she hopes things improve for the people of Syria. “Taymour said that people can get water every two days,” she said. “It is regulated by the government. Electricity, I think, is available only about two hours a day.”
During the presentation one woman in the audience broke in and asked, “How did you escape?”
“I was released on March 4, 2011, on bail, with a court case pending against me,” Taymour replied. “A few days after I was released, I learned that security forces were looking for me again and that my name was on the government wanted lists at checkpoints and at the country’s borders. I felt threatened again. I became a risk for the activists in my circle and I was advised by many activists to leave the country in order to protect them, my family and myself.”
He was able to come to the United States where he and his family are being sponsored by Syrian-born University of Arkansas Fayetteville professors Dr. Mohja Kahf and her husband, Dr. Najib Ghadbian, who are both activists with the uprising.
Taymour’s wife gave birth to their first child, Denise Zehra Elkerim, in Fayetteville on March 5.
Kahf said it was very difficult for Taymour to tell his story; he was in a lot of pain.
“He is so anxious to return to help his fellow country men and women,” Kahf said. “Yet, now that he has a baby, he must just be in such a dilemma.”
Many people listening to the presentation wanted to know how to help, and may have been a bit surprised at the answer the town of Eureka Springs – known for being the metaphysical center of Arkansas — could readily identify with.
“Send them your love,” Taymour said. “The Syrian people need your love.”
“Taymour was wonderful,” said Dr. Jim Dudley, a member of the UUF. “It was heartfelt and emotional. He got a standing ovation. That doesn’t happen often! It was a story that needed telling.”
Taymour would also like people to know that not all protesters of the current Syrian regime approve of violence to accomplish goals. He and many others advocate non-violent opposition. For more information, he recommends following the English-edition page of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SyrainNonviolence.
He closed saying he and many others also don’t want to see one dictatorship replaced by another.
date : 28/03/2012