In a small motel room in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, within sight of the mountains of Syria, a former Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter sits with his legs crossed on his single bed, his urine drainage bag on the floor. This is no ordinary motel room; it is now a rehabilitation centre for those wounded in the conflict across the border.
In January, Zak (not his real name) was shot in Idlib, in north-west Syria. The bullet went through his chest and came out of his back, narrowly missing his spinal cord.
“The regime took a checkpoint belonging to us and we went to hide in a house,” he recalls. “They broke into the house and shot me and two other FSA fighters. I fought back but five of them shot at me. I was hit in the chest on the left side near the heart.”
Zak eventually made it to Antakya, another Turkish border town, where he had surgery before moving to the motel-cum-rehabilitation centre in Reyhanli for long-term care. The centre has become a haven for many wounded rebel fighters.
“Everything is very, very, very bad,” he explains. “I have had to rebuild movement in my spine.”
The centre specialises in spinal cord injuries resulting largely from sniper attacks, shelling and bombings, says Dr Mohammed Al Haji, who manages the centre. There are 70 beds, 30 of which are occupied by male patients. Twenty outpatients come on a daily basis for physiotherapy exercises. The corridors are full of people with gunshot wounds, no limbs or those learning to get around on one leg. The centre also provides psychological support for the injured.
“We teach the patients how to accept their injury and live as normal life as possible,” Dr Al Haji tells me. “Some ignore their injury and can’t integrate back into society. They have a lot of problems and difficulties to overcome so it’s important for them to feel that they’re useful.”
Dr Obadah Alabrash, another doctor working at the centre, points out that it is essential for patients to have direct contact with Syrian doctors with whom they can relate and communicate effectively. “Patients feel comfortable with a Syrian doctor,” he claims. “When they’re coming from Syria and are handled by a Turkish doctor, they don’t feel comfortable talking about their problems.”
Zak’s story is not only representative of the long-term effects of a war that has claimed more than 115,000 lives, but also the lengths to which the injured and sick must go in order to receive adequate medical treatment. The recent kidnapping of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer and six Red Cross staffers in north-west Syria illustrates further the deteriorating security situation, which has forced foreign medical staff to reduce their presence within the country.
“We hope the world can understand exactly what is happening in Syria,” Dr Al Haji pleads. “We hope that people will understand the crisis and will push their governments to do something.”
Zak, who has been at the centre for more than six months, has become increasingly critical of the lack of support he received after he was wounded in Syria. “There is no one taking care of the injured. I ran away to work for the FSA. Give me some honour, don’t come and shout at me. I was fighting. Even the unit I was fighting with left me because I was useless. I was no help to anyone any more.”
According to Zak, he is sick of being bedridden; he added that MRI scans take too long to complete because hospitals are overwhelmed with patients from across the border.
“Maybe God will help and I will get out of here one day,” he says, lighting another cigarette despite the doctor poking his head in several times telling him not to smoke. “If I can’t move, if I can’t walk, how can I go outside to smoke?”
For Dr Al Haji the hardest part is turning away those who have no hope of rehabilitation. “Some cases can improve in two months,” explains the centre manager, “but some can’t get to us until several months after their injury so it will take them a lot longer to see any improvement.”
Patients are evaluated on to see if the centre will be able to make a difference. “If we can, they are admitted. We have seen many difficult cases. If we cannot do anything for them and it’s their final option, it’s very tough for them to hear that. Every patient should take their chance with treatment.”
There have been calls for the international community to establish “humanitarian corridors” between Syria and neighbouring countries to prop up a hospital system that is in dire need of doctors and medical supplies. However, the likelihood of that becoming reality is slim.
For those fortunate enough to make it to the border and receive some medical care, there is some hope. For those left behind in Syria, though, the future remains grim.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.