BRUSSELS/NEW YORK—Three missiles struck a town in Idlib Governorate, Syria, yesterday afternoon causing mass casualties and carnage, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.
A local MSF-supported field hospital received an influx of 130 wounded people. As violence continues unabated in Syria, MSF calls for a massive increase of emergency assistance to Syrian medics working on the front lines.
“At 3:15 p.m. a fighter jet launched three missiles on a highly populated neighborhood in the town center,” said the director of the hospital, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Minutes later, our modest 12-bed makeshift hospital began receiving patients with horrific injuries. The hospital was quickly overwhelmed. Bodies were everywhere—on the tables, in the hallways, on the floor. Medical staff and volunteers picked their way between the bodies of the wounded, doing what they could. We could only treat 80 patients, and we had to turn away 50; we didn’t have the capacity to treat their wounds.”
MSF has been assisting the field hospital with technical advice and emergency support since 2013. The hospital director contacted MSF shortly after the attack, with an urgent request to send blood bags, stretchers, and medicine. Patients continued arriving until about 7:00 p.m. The death toll is not yet known.
“I can scarcely imagine the scale of the horror these doctors and nurses must have faced,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations. “We know from our experience that a 40-patient mass casualty influx in a well-equipped and fully staffed hospital is a desperate challenge. But this is double that number in a few hours, in a makeshift facility with a limited medical team and limited supplies. They, like so many of the field hospitals in Syria, need all the support they can get.”
MSF is sending emergency supplies to the hospital today and organizing a general medical resupply of the hospital in the coming days, due to depletion of the hospital’s pharmacy stock.
This latest mass casualty incident follows a series of chlorine gas attacks in Idlib Governorate in late May, when another MSF-supported medical facility treated 136 patients for symptoms of chlorine poisoning. MSF responded by sending 700 kits for treatment of respiratory conditions associated with gas poisoning to the health center and six other facilities in the affected area.
In the dangerous environment of the Syrian war, MSF and other medical organizations can only operate direct medical activities in a few areas, where freedom of movement and action can be negotiated with armed groups. In other areas where atrocities resulting from barrel bombs, missile strikes, and chemical attacks occur almost daily, an agile and flexible approach to medical support must be scaled up.
“Providing aid in Syria is still possible, but the environment is incredibly difficult,” said Dr. Janssens. “Flexible and innovative approaches are needed. Giving up in the face of adversity is not an option for us—we have to continue supporting Syrian medical networks, as we are doing now with more than 100 hospitals and health posts receiving regular and emergency support, including in areas under siege.”
MSF operates six medical facilities in northern Syria, and also spent four years developing a network of regular and ad-hoc emergency support to Syrian doctors throughout the rest of the country, in areas inaccessible to MSF teams. The support provides monthly supplies and technical medical advice to more than 50 makeshift medical facilities, with a particular focus on besieged areas. More than 100 other facilities are in contact with MSF support teams, regarding acute emergencies and urgently needed essential supplies.