Doctors on the Turkey-Syria Border

Article published on Jan. 21, 2014
Article published on Jan. 21, 2014

In Syria, doctors are in short supply and many hospitals have ceased to exist. The World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates there have been more than 500,000 causalities in the country. The few remaining doctors face governmental bombings or kidnap by Islamists. This is the battle at the Turkish/Syrian border.

'The ground here is red. We say that it is for the blood that has been spilled,' whis­pers Ahmad as he talks to me by the plowed field at the foot of the hills. We are warmed by the au­tumn sun, sur­rounded by the road that leads to the bor­der be­tween Turkey and Syria.

Be­fore we're in sight of the gov­ern­ment check­point, we pass an end­less queue of cars and trucks with Turk­ish li­cense plates. None of them are re­ally going into Syria- they go a few miles, un­load their cargo and then turn around and go back. Be­tween one truck and an­other there’s a packed-up tank rest­ing on a trailer. On the other side of the road, just a lit­tle past the Turk­ish bor­der, there are hun­dreds of peo­ple car­ry­ing an array of bags: sports bags, plas­tics bags, some used car­pets. All are quick to load their be­long­ings into the cars and taxis of their friends and rel­a­tives wait­ing for them in Turkey. Ahmad asks where they plan to go. Some­one sug­gests Switzer­land or Ger­many, but mostly they will stay in Turkey for now. The first town across the bor­der is Rey­hanli, a few kilo­me­tres away. Be­fore the con­flict in Syria erupted, Rey­hanli had a pop­u­la­tion of 63, 000- today the pop­u­la­tion is al­most dou­ble that, owing to the con­stant flow of peo­ple flee­ing Syria.

The Last of the Doc­tors

Its here I meet Ahmad, a pathol­o­gist ar­riv­ing in Turkey for a few days. A large, tall man in a sports jacket and sun­glasses, his smart­phone ring­ing every ten min­utes or so. He is back and forth be­tween his home­town, Homs, where Assad’s gov­ern­ment is still strong and unas­sail­able. ‘My home was bombed, like so many oth­ers. Homs is an Assad strong­hold- it is avowedly Shi­ite, in fact, only Sunni homes were de­stroyed.’ Re­gard­less, Ahmad con­tin­ues to work as a doc­tor in Homs. His fam­ily are safe in Turkey and Ahmad shut­tles be­tween his coun­try and Rey­hanli, where the med­ical sup­plies are.

Around 15, 000 doc­tors fled Syria when the con­flict began. Ac­cord­ing to WHO, 15% of hos­pi­tals were dam­aged or de­stroyed, and 52% of am­bu­lances are now out of use. ‘Homs has 400, 000 res­i­dents,’ says Ahmad, ‘Do you know how many doc­tors there are in the city now? 14. And each has a dif­fer­ent spe­cialty, and frankly they are not well-equipped to help vic­tims of war. I had to ad­vise a car­pen­ter last month who had per­formed five ce­sarean sec­tions.’ When I ask if he has ever con­sid­ered mov­ing to Eu­rope, the an­swer is yes. He’s al­ready well in­formed: they asked for 30, 000 euros to smug­gle him, his wife and his daugh­ter into Swe­den. ‘By sea?’ I ask. Ahmad laughs ner­vously, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not that des­per­ate yet. I know that many peo­ple are likely to get into Eu­rope by sea, but there are other, safer routes, al­though they are more ex­pen­sive.’

No Man’s Land

40km fur­ther west, I meet the staff of a major in­ter­na­tional NGO: Ital­ians, French and Span­ish, nor­mally sta­tioned near the Syr­ian city of Idlib. Their field is called Fellini. Within three weeks how­ever, they find them­selves stuck in An­ti­och, Turkey. ‘To­mor­row morn­ing, I’ll try to con­vince the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment to allow us back into Syria again,' says Loiq, head of mis­sion. After the car bomb ex­plo­sion, and the cap­ture of six mem­bers of the Red Cross around Idlib, they closed the bor­der to Eu­ro­peans. While wait­ing for clear­ance from the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment, the staff can only co­or­di­nate with the Syr­ian staff via Skype. ‘It’s ter­ri­ble, but it’s the only way we can treat our pa­tients,’ says Elisa, an Ital­ian psy­chol­o­gist. For now, they re­main in An­ti­och, where, with­out their lab coats, they are mis­taken for tourists. There’s a rest­less­ness at­tached to the idea of try­ing to cross the bor­der. The sit­u­a­tion has changed lately, ‘The prob­lem is now not sim­ply Assad’s gov­ern­ment, but also rebel ex­trem­ists like ISIS [The Is­lamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, Ed.] from other Mus­lim coun­tries. They are fight­ing for the cre­ation of an Is­lamic state which would be­long nei­ther to Syria nor to the FSA,’ says Elisa, ‘They don’t like the way we op­er­ate and try to com­pli­cate things for us. Most Syr­i­ans won­der who these peo­ple are and what it is that they want.’

 On 16th Sep­tem­ber 2013, 55 doc­tors from across the world wrote an open let­ter to the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and all par­ties in­volved in the con­flict, ask­ing that they de­sist from at­tack­ing med­ical per­son­nel and fa­cil­i­ties within Syria. In the let­ter, pub­lished in The Lancet, the doc­tors refer to the sit­u­a­tion as, ‘one of the great­est hu­man­i­tar­ian emer­gen­cies since the end of the Cold War.’

While in Eu­rope non-mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion is dis­cussed, Elisa writes me an email say­ing that Fellini will be closed per­ma­nently. It is an­other bi­par­ti­san de­feat for the Syr­i­ans- whether they are com­bat­ants or not.  

A doc­u­men­tary in Eng­lish about the city of Homs.