Syria: "We Forget Some Images, But Others Refuse to Fade Away"

A view of destroyed houses in a village of Northern Syria, on Sunday, February 3, 2013. Seven houses were destroyed after a helicopter dropped a barrel bomb, or drum, filled with TNT and metal pieces two weeks earlier. Residents heard the helicopter approaching and immediately fled. While no one was killed, seven people in total were injured in the incident as they tried to leave. The injured were taken to the MSF clinic for treatment as well as another clinic in a nearby village.
Nicole Tung
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For weeks, the East Ghouta rural area near Damascus, Syria, has been besieged by intense bombing on an almost daily basis.

On February 5, the East Ghouta area was reportedly hit by 60 air strikes in just one day in, during which two medical facilities were struck and all staff and patients evacuated. On February 8, a nurse was killed on his way to work February 8. Two weeks prior, on January 23, 147 wounded people were sent to seven makeshift hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) after a crowded market was bombed.

Hundreds of wounded have been treated in MSF-supported medical facilities in the area, in fact. "For the past month, the crisis in the besieged areas near Damascus has dramatically deteriorated," says Dr Bart Janssens, director of operations for MSF. "But these incidents are in no way unique. They are part of an ongoing pattern of unimaginable violence. Working from outside of Syria, we are trying to support the Syrian medics who are treating the victims of these attacks and maintaining a basic health care service, but the lifeline to keep those facilities operating is extremely tenuous."  

Aside from the four medical structures that MSF still operates in Syria, the medical humanitarian organization has developed a support program for Syrian medics working in more than 100 facilities throughout the country. MSF provides both material and training support to help these makeshift hospitals and health centers cope with extreme medical needs. The focus of this support is increasingly on besieged areas. However, repeated raids cause mass injuries and lead to supply shortages that are hard to make up for despite all attempts.

Over the past two years, the MSF team has been in regular contact with Syrian medical staff as their efforts to provide care have become increasingly desperate. AA and AK are two paramedics from the besieged East Ghouta area near Damascus who asked to remain anonymous. Working with hospitals that MSF provides regular support to, they describe their struggle to respond after the bombing of a public square on January 23.

AA: Around half an hour after we left the mosque, fighter-jets started bombing the town square. We received a call from the emergency unit and we were instructed to head to the raid area to evacuate the victims. The town square is at a crossroads and hosts a popular market where street vendors sell their products.

I was shocked when I arrived. The place was hardly recognizable, due to the extent of destruction. Dozens of people, dead and wounded, were scattered all over the place: children, men, women, old people.

AK: A thick cloud of dust covered the place. You could only see a few meters ahead, making it very difficult to locate the victims. The bombs brought entire buildings to the ground, with residents inside. There was indescribable, horrifying destruction. Immediately, we started evacuating as many victims as we could, driving them to hospitals in the region.

AA: Immediately after the first trip, we rushed back to the raid area to evacuate more victims. There was a second raid. Bombs fell from everywhere. An ambulance was hit and I was wounded in the head, but my injury was superficial.

AK: I was also hit in the arm. Thankfully, my injury was superficial too. It is not uncommon for there to be a second wave of bombing after a bombing raid. We paramedics, every time we are dispatched to evacuate victims, we never discount the possibility that we could become one of the statistics. We had already been bombed before, while evacuating wounded people. One of my colleagues was seriously injured in that bombing. He lost an arm. He is still alive, but he can’t work anymore.

AA: We were feeling fear and anxiety, but we started rescuing victims and evacuating the wounded towards hospitals. The rescue operations are made harder by technical obstacles and lack of resources. Fuel is scarce and we have no personal protection gear, such as helmets. Our work is almost a mission impossible. Our attempts to respond to these needs fail most of the time.

AK: Exactly. Our ambulances are just regular vehicles which have been transformed to fit two wounded people in the rear part of the cabin. On that Friday, we had to evacuate eight or nine people every time. And there were other difficulties too; the vehicles are not equipped to be driven in devastated areas and the tires frequently get punctured by the debris, making the operation harder and forcing crews to stop and change tires.

We are somehow getting used to regular bombings, but sometimes you are confronted with a scene that you just cannot cope with. I can never forget those tiny body parts that probably belonged to a little boy, full of life. This is the sort of thing we see almost every day. We forget some images, but others refuse to fade away.

What we see here and what is happening here is a tragedy. The risks we take are scary. We knew from day one that anything was possible as far as our destiny was concerned. We made up our mind and accepted the job, as a humanitarian mission and being aware that if we stopped doing what we are doing, the humanitarian situation will worsen.

We don’t know what is in store for us, but we know that our lives are at stake, today more than ever. We try to be cautious as much as possible, but in reality we share the same general danger as everyone living here under the bombs. Our fate is dictated by the siege we are living under, but it only makes us more determined to do our job, hoping that we can help alleviate this ordeal.