07.27.12

Syrian Rebel Fighters Overwhelm Turkish Border Hospitals

As fighting intensifies in Syria, wounded rebel fighters—as well as civilian refugees—are crossing into Turkey seeking medical treatment for often critical injuries. Care is free for the exiles, but the heavy influx is severely straining hospitals.

It had been 30 minutes since his surgery, and the man was still in the grips of anesthesia. He rocked his head from side to side. “Oh, God. Everything is destroyed,” he shouted, almost in a sing-song voice. “But it’s okay. We will kill you. We will kill you.” He was a fighter with the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and had crossed into southern Turkey to find treatment for a shattered arm. Now, he lay in bed in a Turkish hospital in Reyhanli, just a few miles from the border, with a handful of his countrymen. He began reciting verses from the Quran. Someone fanned him with sheets of paper as his voice echoed down the hall.

As fighting in Syria intensifies, reaching even into its largest cities, refugees continue to stream out of the country—as they did again in droves Wednesday, fleeing from Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, ahead of a major battle expected there. Turkey has shouldered the bulk of the refugees, with some 43,000 officially registered so far, and still more living under the radar. They have filled refugee camps along the border as well as places like Reyhanli, where rents have jumped as the new arrivals from Syria pour into town.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, cross regularly into Turkey, and for many soldiers, hospitals are the first stop. FSA fighters have become a constant presence, as they seek treatment for injuries that would put them at risk of exposure and arrest at home.

In Syria, even unaffiliated men of fighting age have been denied medical care over suspicions that they might be with the opposition, says Donatella Rovera, senior crisis researcher at Amnesty International, who has documented human- rights abuses inside Syria during the conflict. “There is so much need on the Turkish side because there is so much deprivation, and deliberately so, on the Syrian side,” she says.

Care is free for the Syrian rebels, paid for by the Turkish government. Turkish ambulances are also reportedly stationed at border crossings to help ferry wounded fighters. But the influx of patients has taxed hospitals in places like Reyhanli, where, even before the conflict, locals could find themselves queuing for treatment. The strain has intensified in recent months, as the fighting in Syria becomes more widespread, and the regime resorts to deadlier force. “Most of the people have critical injuries, and the hospitals aren’t made to receive these kinds of injuries,” says Omar al-Guni, a Syrian doctor working in Reyhanli. “When you have just five people with major injuries in some hospitals, you declare an emergency. What about 100?”

Meanwhile, other expat Syrian doctors are setting up informal underground networks to smuggle drugs, medical equipment, and antibiotics back into Syria. And Syrian-American doctors have been arriving in Turkey in droves to start organizations such as the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, founded by an American doctor from Texas, and to organize supply networks. One doctor told Reuters that many hospitals and drug-storage facilities in Syria had been destroyed by Assad’s forces. According to the same doctor, medical-supply companies in Turkey are offering steep discounts or free supplies to the Syrian doctors, who purchase what they need with the help of money from Syrian-exile groups.

“When you have just five people with major injuries in some hospitals, you declare an emergency. What about 100?”

Once the exiles are treated in Turkey’s hospitals, they are discharged, often to refugee camps or private homes, where they can recover from their injuries. In one apartment in Antakya, a city near Reyhalin,, one man lay on a mattress on the floor, scratching his thigh above the stump that was once his leg. Another sat staring at the television, which was tuned to the channel guide; under his shirt, a hole in his stomach showed his intestines, covered only by a plastic bag sagging with fluid. In another apartment, in Reyhanli, another border town, a man blocked a reporter from entering the premises. “The world already knows what’s happening to the Syrian people,” he said.

With the refugee camps now full to almost bursting, and with newly-injured Syrians arriving each day, convalescent homes are sprouting up in Turkey’s border towns to accommodate the overflow. The area’s largest opened over the last week in Reyhanli. Young FSA fighters limp around on crutches. In one room, Mustafa Salah Ismail, 27, reclined on his bed, smoking a cigarette, listening to music on his cellphone and fingering a bracelet of prayer beads. His legs lay limp in front on him, and urine dripped through a catheter tube that ran out from his shorts. He’d been paralyzed from the waist down while fighting in Latakia in June. Asked about his plans for the future, he said, “Just the collapse of the regime.”