19 December 2012
Darkoush, Idlib Region.
It’s 8pm. We inspect the building being refurbished into an emergency hospital. Syrian teenagers can’t wait for Dr Ahmed to arrive and brief us. He is operating in a one-room facility closer to the ever changing frontline. They give us a tour of the hospital excitedly, proudly shouting out all the medical names. There is huge anticipation here, our intervention is the first in 21 months of war from “outsiders” and is a source of immense hope for a people the world has shut its doors on. “This South African hospital is going to be the biggest and the best in whole Syria” they exclaim. Assad’s forces have destroyed every health facility in the country.
A group of people run into the building desperately seeking doctors; a 20 year old has just died in fighting on the outskirts of the city (being one of 3), his mother has collapsed and they fear the worst for her. Two of us South Africans go to her aid; from the yard entrance to the house front door every Syrian who came to mourn want to touch us, hug us and kiss us simply because we just happen to be here. Words of prayer and praise flow through their lips. The gratitude is palpable. Doctors are a “limited edition” commodity in this region where human lives are cheap, where the greatest number of casualties are women and children and where medical personnel, aid agencies and humanitarian supplies are non-existent. A gentle touch, a simple examination, a word of counsel and reassurance, and recovery is rapid. We are distracted by loud sobbing outside; the sister of the deceased teenager has arrived, she is inconsolable not having seen her brother in ten months. Trauma counsellors will be of immense value here; people have to “unburden” themselves from the pain of material loss, displacement, separation and death many having lost several family members. Another bomb goes off; a 15 year old is killed.
The next day a 16 year old leukaemia patient comes to our facility confused and screaming. There are no chemotherapy drugs here, in fact there’s nothing here, not even medication to treat simple flu.
Soran City, Azaz Region.
We tour the region. Thousands have been displaced; almost all are from Aleppo predominantly women and children; the youth and all fit males, 16 years and upwards are defending their cities. Food production has collapsed. Electricity has been disconnected by Assad for a month now, water pumps and irrigation has shut down. These refugees live in flimsy tents in open fields. The night time temperature is minus 4 degrees. How does one survive? There has been no food here for weeks, no baby milk powder for days. People eat grass discreetly. An elderly man approaches us “do you have any bread, the children haven’t eaten”. It’s the same over and over again; nobody ever asks for themselves nor do they neglect to disarm you with that broad Syrian smile that belies the hunger, cold, pain and suffering beneath. From Aleppo we get the feedback that distraught mothers are now selling their bodies to feed their children. Can it get anymore humiliating?
We meet an elderly unemployed man who rents one room with no doors or windows. Outside on the concrete floor his two cerebral palsied children infested with flies around the face entering the mouth. Their medical condition has disabled their muscles and reflexes. There is no one to take care of them. Our hosts cannot witness the suffering anymore. They shed a silent tear and walk away.
Twenty fours later Assad’s planes are 4km away from where we are; then comes the not so shocking news that 2 bombs were dropped in a market place, an area which we drove through yesterday; 20 civilians died instantly. This is a common practice of bombing civilian areas whilst snipers almost exclusively shoot women and children. ( A woman who was shot in the head in Darkoush had to accompany us across the river into Turkey). More bombs explode in the Azaz airport area, many deaths are recorded. The Syrians report that for the first time the bodies have severe burns. They haven’t experienced this before. From the description it sounds like phosphorous, which we experienced in Gaza, or it may be some other kind of chemical weapons but according to them it certainly is different.
We visit the tent city in As Salameh at night. We are stunned. These are not tents; this is material to make sacks. Rain seeps through and soaks the inside of the tent; it’s the cold and rainy season now. We ask for permission to visit the tent; two women are huddling their baby daughters in one thin blanket each. The floor is frozen; the cold has no respect for the clothes we are wearing yet we came fully prepared but are still freezing. What about these women and children who have no clothes except what they are wearing, no shoes, no jackets, no heating and no hot water.
In all this gloom we are more determined then ever to respond effectively. We have found and opened a humanitarian corridor into Syria. The first 130 tons of our supplies enter Syria; the ground floor of the hospital is almost completely refurbished; we call in the engineers and give a contract to add a second floor immediately; the first medical equipment arrives. Purchases of the second batch is underway. Our medical teams are on standby waiting for the instruction to move in. That day is not too far away.
Our humanity simply cannot permit us to leave these people isolated. Many thanks to those who have already contributed. Our banking details: Gift of the Givers, Standard Bank, Pietermaritzburg, Acc No. 052278611, Branch Code 057525. Please fax or email deposit slips.
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