Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Why are Syrian doctors in Gambia and not in Syria

Gambians woke up last week to yet another surprise by the Gambian dictator when he paraded before national television a team of Syrian medical doctors who, they were told, were in The Gambia to help with their services, primarily in the main referral hospital in the capital city of Banjul and other health facilities.

We can only speculate as to the size of the team to because seven new Mitsubishi 4-wheel Pajeros were handed to the Syrian team leader as gift "to each team member' from the benevolent dictator, and not from the Gambian taxpayer.

Jammeh being the devious character he is, adeptly navigated around the need to specify whether the doctors were in The Gambia as part of the official Syrian government aid program.  In fact, the genesis of this apparent benevolence was oddly omitted from the introduction of the team of doctors by both the dictator and his Vice President which, under normal circumstances, should be the pride of any donor to be identified with this great humanitarian gesture. The fact that neither the Syrian government nor any humanitarian agency was identified or associated with the team was the first red flag.

The second red flag came the moment this group of young doctors were identified as Syrians who will be spending months, if not years, in The Gambia and not in their home country of Syria where an intense civil war is raging on and has now entered its 1,000 days and counting.  The country's turmoil started with a protest against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in March of 2011.  A threshold was reached a year and a half ago when the International Red Cross formally reclassified the fighting a civil war. The death toll continued to climb as fighting raged on, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flee to seek sanctuary in camps and neighboring countries.

The Syria civil war is no small potato.  Over 100,000 have been killed to date.  The U.N. believes the figure to be higher because many deaths go unreported.  2.3 million Syrian refugees have been registered, and ten of thousands more awaiting registration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  75% of the refugees are women and children while another quarter are boys under the age of 18.  Another 4 million Syrians have been estimated to have been internally displaced while aid agencies continue to revise their estimates upward.

The third red flag came on Christmas eve which drove me to the keyboard to try establish the rationale for the presence of a Syrian medical team in The Gambia at a time when their own country is in flames and in the midst of human carnage televised daily across the world.   In neighboring Guinea-Bissau, the Justice department ordered the arrest of the country's Interior Minister, Antonio suca Ntchama, accused of authorizing the illegal transportation and entry into Bissau from Lisbon on the 10 December this year of several Syrian illegal immigrants.

According to the Commission of Inquiry, their entry into Guinea-Bissau was illegally sanctioned by the Interior Minister.   There's a stand-off presently because the Minister's lawyer has refused to surrender his client to the authorities, threatening to sink Guinea-Bissau further into political instability.  It is generally believed that there must be reasonable evidence before the Commission to order the Minister's arrest, even at the risk of plunging Guinea-Bissau into further chaos.

It appears that since the nabbing of the former Guinea-Bissau Navy Chief Rear Admiral Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto in high seas on drug trafficking charges by the U.S. National Drug Administration, authorities in Guinea-Bissau have become more vigilant.  Is it human or drug trafficking related or is it terrorism-related?  Why did the Minister give clearance for the Syrians, whose presence in Guinea-Bissau is considered a security threat, to board the flight from Portugal?  There are many unanswered questions but, at least, the Guinea-Bissau authorities are asking the right ones, and holding someone accountable.

Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement, is fighting in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.  Chemical weapons have been found to have been used.  Both sides have accused the other of being the culprit.  Business associates of Jammeh have been traced to Hezbollah by the U.S. Treasury Department, one of whom have since been expelled from The Gambia only to be "pardoned" by the dictator, less than six months into the expulsion.  It is not clear if he has taken the offer or he intends to.  Despite bad reports about Jammeh's tendencies to associate with unsavory characters with dubious background, he continues to dig himself deeper into the international controversies that borders on criminality.

Muhammed Bazzi, is a Lebanese businessman, The Gambia's Honorary Consul to Lebanon, and a close associate of Jammeh.  He led the team to State House to introduce the medical team to members of his cabinet.  It was at at the meeting that it was revealed to the surprise of everyone in the room that two more functions have been added to multiple duties.  He has been appointed Gambia's "External Minister of Health" and "Recruiter" of the health sector - two titles that have left Gambians wondering when will all the madness end.

Given the gruesome statistics coming out of the raging civil war where Syrians are being killed in unacceptably high numbers and millions of Syrian refugees, it makes little sense that the country can spare a single doctor when even Syria's arch rival, Israel, is pitching in to help within Syria's borders with humanitarian aid.  The team of Syrian doctors (assuming that they are who they claim to be) should be in Damascus helping their own people in their hour of need and not in Banjul.