Mohammed is one of 15,000 Syrian doctors who was forced out of his country, unable to continue treating the wounded in a bloody conflict that forced the United Nations to stop counting the dead.
In late 2012, he was working as a field doctor in rural Damascus when he became the target of a brutal crackdown on those providing medical assistance to the injured in opposition-held areas.
“I left Syria after I was detained three times,” he said.
“In none of the times I was detained I admitted that I was helping people or treating injured civilians so I could be released. I was tortured for only being suspected of helping people in need who don’t have any access to medical care.”
Mohammed, who has since resettled in the US and who asked that his real name not be used because his family is still in Syria, said he was one of thousands of doctors who were targeted for their work.
“At every checkpoint they (the government) were inspecting me just for being a doctor. Some of my friends were killed under torture for treating injured people and others have been detained for longer than 18 months.”
In July 2012, the Syrian government passed an anti-terrorism law that effectively made it a crime to provide medical care to anyone suspected of supporting the opposition.
An investigation by the Human Rights Council concluded last September:
“By … targeting medical personnel and interfering with patients receiving treatment, Government forces have perpetrated a concerted policy of denying medical aid to those affiliated with or part of the armed opposition,” it wrote.
Half of the certificated physicians in Syria have left over the past three years, according to a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), leaving behind a crippling healthcare system that was once the envy of the Arab world.
Of the 6,000 physicians practicing in Syria’s largest city Aleppo before the war, 250 remained as of July 2013, according to the PHR report, serving a population of 2.5 million.
In the Damascus suburbs where Mohammed worked, a pre-war figure of 1000 doctors had been cut down to 30 by last December, the report further added.
Not only have doctors fled – nurses, ambulance drivers and technicians have also been forced out of the country, unable to provide life-saving medical care because of the deliberate and systematic attack on medical facilities by forces on both sides.
As of January 24, 2014, at least 398 medical personnel had been killed since the beginning of the conflict, including 149 doctors and 80 medics, the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria reported.
Dr Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), said most doctors who had fled Syria had gone to the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, followed by Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Europe and the US.
“Most of them will not return based on previous experience with Syrian diaspora, especially given the security and economic situation will take many years to get back to pre-crisis level,” he said.
Mohammed, who must first pass certification exams to resume his work, is one of up to 1200 Syrian doctors who have resettled in the US since the conflict began.
“Nowhere could be substituted with my home country but the Assad regime forced me to leave Syria or I would have simply become an addition to the number of detainees or torture victims while the world is enjoying watching our disaster,” he said.
But the doctor shortage in Syria continues to take a massive toll.
Dr Sahloul estimates there is a “secondary death toll” that is even higher than those killed by firearms and other crude weapons.
He estimates up to 300,000 excessive deaths because of a lack of access to routine medications for chronic diseases such as diabetes and lung disease, along with premature deaths from infectious diseases, malnutrition and neonatal problems.
Dr Annie Sparrow, assistant professor of global health and deputy director of the human rights program at Icahn School of Medicine, agreed.
“There’s a huge secondary death toll. It’s not as sexy as ‘war trauma’ but it’s the reality.”
The destruction of medical facilities has also left 70,000 cancer patients and 5000 dialysis patients without necessary treatment.
But as the war continues unabated, health experts warned that the destruction of Syria’s healthcare system and its doctor shortage, would generations to restore.
Sophie Cousins is an Australian journalist based in Beirut and Delhi.