x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turkey's Antakya a refuge for Syrians

Where once people crossed the border to shop at Antakya's bazaar, opposition fighters now come for arms and medical treatment. But the city is struggling to cope with the wounded.

Despite being faced with increasing severity of the medical needs, Turkish authorities are not permitting Syrian doctors from the United States and Europe to perform any of the more challenging operations.
Despite being faced with increasing severity of the medical needs, Turkish authorities are not permitting Syrian doctors from the United States and Europe to perform any of the more challenging operations.

ANTAKYA, TUKREY // Before the uprising against the government of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, hundreds of carloads of shoppers used to cross the border each weekend to shop in the sprawling bazaar of the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, also known as Antioch.

Syrians still arrive here daily in the hundreds - but they no longer come to buy clothes and housewares. They come instead for weapons and, as in Raed's case, for medical care.

Raed, 28, fights on the side of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). In January, he was hit in the left leg by shrapnel when government forces cracked down on a demonstration at the Al Madiq citadel in the central Syrian province of Hama.

His quest for medical treatment took him to a nearby clinic and then on a harrowing 11-day journey to Turkey, during which government forces and their supporters lurked at every turn. "There were too many checkpoints," he recalls.

With 20,000 government forces said to be amassing on the outskirts of Aleppo in preparation for a push to regain control of Syria's commercial capital from the insurgents, Raed soon could be followed by thousands more wounded fighters and civilians. That is if they manage to avoid a lethal volley of gun and artillery fire and slip past the regime's security net.

The strain on Antakya's health care system is already apparent in the growing numbers of people in need of care and in the inadequate treatment of injuries inflicted by bullets and shrapnel.

So overstretched are the city's hospitals and clinics that the Turkish authorities have allowed Syrian refugees to open their own makeshift health centres.

One such centre, in a multi-storey building in downtown Antakya, has the green, white and black flag of the Syrian opposition painted on its facade.

Hasan Nagar, the doctor who runs the facility, insists that all those opposed to Mr Assad are rebels, whether they have picked up a gun or aid those who have.

"The people going into Syria to fight are no different than the people here," he says. "We are all fighting. I am 77 years old. If I could carry a gun, I would go into Syria to fight."

Dr Nagar says he fled to Germany after the Assad regime declared membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a capital crime in 1980. Now a German citizen, he says he no longer belongs to the Brotherhood.

He came to Antakya earlier this year to provide medical care to Syrians, both civilians and rebels, and opened his clinic six months ago.

With the aid of donations from Syrian expatriates in the United States and Europe to help meet his US$25,000 (Dh91,822) monthly expenses - he says he receives no help from the opposition Syrian National Council - he now treats up to 50 patients each day, making it the largest "illegal" health facility for Syrians in the city.

"The Turkish government knows about it but [it is] letting us do what we want," he says.

Treatment options are limited in Dr Nagar's clinic. In deference to Turkish law, he will only perform surgery using local anaesthetic. More complicated operations are carried out at Turkish hospitals.

Talal Abdalla, a former dentist from Hama province, says Turkish health care facilities and doctors are overwhelmed.

"Turkish hospitals are treating those injured in Syria like they treat sick Turkish patients," says Mr Abdalla, who is showing a visitor around the flat he has rented in Antakya where wounded Syrians can convalesce. "There is a very big difference between the injured and the sick. Turkey is not used to treating those injured from war."

He points to Raed and says that the decision by a Turkish doctor to amputate the lower part of his leg was probably not necessary.

There have been other cases of amputated limbs and poorly set bones, he says, problems he blames on Arabic translators whose knowledge of medical terminology is poor and on doctors who lack training to deal with trauma injuries.

"There are no specialists," he says. "That's why most of the surgeries here are not turning out very well. Some get worse."

Despite being faced with increasing severity of the medical needs, Turkish authorities are not permitting Syrian doctors from the United States and Europe to perform any of the more challenging operations.

The solution is for the Turkish government to bend the law a little more and allow such Syrian doctors that are coming to Antakya from abroad to perform some of the surgeries, Mr Abdalla said.

For Raed, it is too little, too late. He does not dwell on mistakes made here, though.

Instead, he waits for a prosthesis so that he can return to Syria and the battlefield.

"When I get the leg, I want to go back to fight," he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae