Syria: Providing Care Wherever Possible

Now in its fifth year, the conflict in Syria has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people and displaced approximately ten million. To respond to the overwhelming need for medical care, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has spent the last three years working with Syrian doctors who remained in the country throughout the conflict to support a growing number of underground and improvised medical clinics. This program of support operates in both government- and rebel-controlled territory.

The Directorate of Health for Hama region is a network of medical facilities set-up by Syrian doctors to provide medical care in areas controlled by opposition forces. The day Dr. Ahmad Dobbis, medical coordinator for the Directorate in the Hama region, gave this interview, the town of Kafr Zita was bombed earlier in the morning. Four people were killed and nearly 25 were wounded.  The director of the Hama Directorate of Health was on site to coordinate the surgeons and the medical centers.

“The town of Kafr Zita is in northern Hama, on the front line. The regime controls the area to the south. The front line is bombed constantly, every day.

Kafr Zita is a town of 25,000 inhabitants. People have fled because it’s become too dangerous. They’ve taken refuge in surrounding areas. When the skies are clear and cloudless, the planes take off to bomb inhabited areas and helicopters drop barrel bombs full of explosives. People prefer the winter because they are less exposed during that time of year.

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The hospital can’t close because many people may need care. It is a three-story building that has been targeted several times by helicopters and planes. Now there is only one story remaining where we can work: the basement.

Four surgeons are working there, with a student assisting them. They have three operating rooms and a radio. The town’s other hospital is closed. It was destroyed by a barrel bomb.

The village of Alatamneh is four kilometers from Kafr Zita. No one lives there anymore. Sometimes, when the village isn’t being bombed, townspeople pass through just to pick up a few belongings.

A medical post has been set up in a cave dug in a hillside next to Alatamneh, near the government lines. A surgeon, nurse anesthetist, surgical assistant, and a nurse are working there on an ongoing basis. They have four rooms—for surgery, emergencies, the pharmacy and radio, and one with two beds for post-surgical patients.

However, the wounded don’t stay long. One or two hours after surgery or anesthesia, an ambulance takes them to a hospital. The people who work at the medical post bring drugs and one week’s supply of food with them. They work and sleep there. After two weeks of work, they take a two-day break, if they can. 

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Health care provided through the medical network whose activities we coordinate in the Hama region is not limited to the wounded. We’ve created a new medical network in the region because the health care system had been destroyed. We administer vaccinations and treat chronic illnesses and common medical needs.

The displaced persons who have settled in areas that are not under attack need medical care, too. When we realized that, we opened an initial clinic in January 2013, in eastern Hama. As the situation changed in the field, field hospitals were converted to clinics. Now there are eight.

In Tarmala, there is a pediatrics department and an obstetrics department, where Caesarean sections can be performed. It’s the only hospital in the region providing this care and it is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The people living in that area cannot go to hospitals in government-held areas.”       

Kafr Zita hospital (Idlib area) was badly damaged by shelling. Still a Syrian medical team keeps working there, in the basement. MSF supports this hospital with drugs and medical material.