In Turkish border town, Syrian doctors and other refugees plan for new future

December 9, 2012

Operating rooms and intensive-care units are being outfitted in an abandoned customs house just a few yards from here, across the Syrian border in rebel-controlled territory at the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Rebel fighters and civilians with gruesome injuries arrive every day, in desperate need of medical treatment. Even though Syrian warplanes have dropped bombs nearby, and international intelligence officials warn that those bombs could soon be equipped with chemical warheads, Syrian internist Monzer Yazji and the doctors he is working with say they are determined to open their 60-bed hospital soon.

“We are in the final stage of the collapse of the regime, and we have to be ready from Day One,” said Yazji, who lived in the United States for 20 years and runs a Syrian medical relief charity based in Turkey.

The hospital, he says, will repudiate everything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad represents. That means treating captured security forces members who fought against the rebels to prop up Assad’s government, the same government that has arrested, tortured and killed physicians who provided medical assistance to protesters and rebel fighters over the course of the 20-month-old conflict.

“We are not like them,” said Yazji, speaking in his unmarked office in an apartment building in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border.


(The Washington Post/Source: Staff reports)

The town is suspended between war and peace. It is filled with dreamers who are forging ahead with plans for new hospitals and town councils, civil courts and police departments, even trash collection, in parts of northwestern Syria that are controlled by rebel forces. It also is a place steeped in pain. Hundreds of wounded Syrians have been brought across the border, in need of specialized care that, right now, is unavailable here.

Reyhanli’s 60,000 residents are mostly Sunni Arabs with close familial ties to the Syrians who live on the other side of the mountain, beyond razor-wire fencing that marks the border. They have largely welcomed the 15,000 Syrians who have sought sanctuary among them — a stark contrast to Turkish cities with large populations of Alawites, members of Assad’s Shiite-affiliated sect, where demonstrators have come out in support of the Syrian president.

Local officials have turned a blind eye to Syrians selling used cars of questionable origins, sporting Bulgarian license plates, from a vacant lot next to a rehabilitation center. They have accommodated more than 20 international humanitarian groups looking for quiet ways to donate medicine and food to Syrians without drawing attention, because not all of the organizations are registered with the Turkish government.

“We come on tourist visas,” said a worker for a Europe-based nongovernmental organization who spoke on the condition that the group not be named. “We make a few contacts here. . . . Then we get to know some people who work at the border. If they like you, they’ll let you do your work. It’s all very personal.”

At the same time, residents are making money off the refugees. Many landlords have increased rents fivefold, and merchants have put up handwritten storefront signs in Arabic to attract refugees who have a little money to spend.

Dire medical needs

Every day, 10 to 20 people are brought across the border — children with bullets in their skulls, old men whose feet are swollen and red with gaping wounds, young men paralyzed from the waist down because of shrapnel or bullets.

The three rehabilitation centers in Reyhanli are staffed by Syrian physicians, many of whom left their country to avoid arrest for treating rebels and civilian protesters. Most do not have licenses to provide more than rudimentary care. They fear torture and death if they return to Syria.

A look at the Syrian uprising nearly two years later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

“This is the first time a government has targeted physicians,” said Yazji, who as head of the umbrella Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations makes periodic forays into besieged Syrian towns. He said that about 50 Syrian doctors have been arrested and killed since the uprising began. There were signs of torture on their bodies when they were returned to their families, he said.

Much of the humanitarian aid in Reyhanli is backed by donations from affluent Syrian expatriates. A small hospital, for example, is funded by the owner of Orient TV — a prominent Syrian opposition figure whose network broadcasts from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

There is bitterness that more international aid has not been forthcoming. “We understand not providing weapons,” said Yasser Said, a Syrian lawyer who manages an 80-bed rehabilitation center in the town. “But why not medical supplies?”

Hussein al-Mustafa, a surgeon who said he fled the northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo to avoid arrest for helping protesters, ticked off some of the needs. One rehabilitation center secured an X-ray machine, but it was so old that doctors could not find film for it. The center cannot afford Clexane, a medicine that stops blood from forming potentially life-threatening clots. There are far too few wheelchairs and just a week’s supply of the painkiller Gabapentin for the 25 patients who need it.

In a room painted a milky green, 12-year-old Salah Hussein Gayari lay in a bed, with two metal fragments lodged in his spine and another in his blinded right eye. He is paralyzed below the waist.

Salah, who has soccer in his soul and wants to be a doctor when he grows up, said he was heading to the market in his village of Abu Dhour, near Idlib, when an artillery shell fell nearby. Neighbors drove him to Turkey to be operated on.

Two older brothers who had joined the rebel forces left to keep watch over him. Doctors told them that Salah needs more specialized care to remove the remaining metal from his body. “Can you take him somewhere out of the country?” the brother asked a visitor.

Building institutions

Yazji said he will move his organization’s headquarters to the hospital at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing as soon as it opens. He believes that the Assad regime will collapse within weeks, not months. And he has told his wife that the next time they meet, it will be in Syria.

Wassim Taha, head of the Syrian Organization for Refugees, thinks it will take much longer. But he, too, is planning for the future. His focus has shifted from coordinating aid to building institutions.

More than 30 civilian councils have been formed in northern Syria that can distribute funds and provide other help, said Taha, working out of an apartment office equipped with two laptops and a desk. He is trying to get lawyers to establish civil courts and is seeking money to pay the salaries of lawyers, judges and police officers. Taha said that several European governments have provided financial backing for the building of civil institutions but that the United States has not.

“If it takes a long time, the extremists will take over,” said Taha, a former fashion designer who was involved in opposition politics for many years. “It will destroy Syria.”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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