Leaving Syria with a promise

Getting medical aid to Syria is not a political decision – it is a humanitarian responsibility.

Just before we left Deir Sunbuul, the mountain town that we made our home for five days, the doctor asked me quietly if I could help to get medicines for his clinic.

I said I would try. 

I would talk to NGOs and call the charities. 

I would publish the list he had quickly scrawled of the supplies he urgently needs. 

I would talk to anybody I thought could get supplies through. 

This is because for a trained physician, who runs the clinic in the town where he grew up, to not be able to do his job in the face of so much suffering is agonising.

Dr Hani Marouf talked about the promises he had heard from the Syrian Red Crescent and the Turkish aid distribution centre.

On a crackly phone line he had repeatedly been told fresh supplies would come soon. They’ve said that for the past three months. Nothing has arrived. The clinic got excited when they heard money had been raised for them in Kuwait. Nothing turned up. They believe it was stolen in Turkey.

The clinic is now on its last legs. Much of the medical equipment is broken or worn out. His baby scales don’t work. Their only canvas stretcher is rotten and useless. The doctor dragged in a table tennis table to treat patients and an old wooden coat-stand is used to hang the saline bags. There are piles of small white boxes on some of the shelves. I ask what they are. Vitamins and drugs to treat Alzeihmer’s disease. He laughs. His patients don’t live long enough to get Alzeihmer’s.

When government forces took control of the town earlier this year they ransacked his original clinic, pouring oil over everything. Medicines and equipment were stolen. The regime soldiers are now gone and the clinic is now in a different building so the bombers above don’t know its location. 

‘Nobody helps us’

The doctor and his male nurses spend their days and nights there. Marouf is exhausted. He’s lost all hope for the future.

“We have become a dark country. Some countries help Bashar [al-Assad] to make bombs and destroy our country. But nobody helps us.” 

He said that after this past year, he has “no reason to be hopeful” and that he believes his country will become another Afghanistan.

His makeshift clinic is the closest medical facility for ten towns across this mountain region of Jabal Zawiya.

Every day people turn up with bad backs, asthma attacks, skin conditions – routine complaints that require simple drugs. The doctor has little to offer – even antibiotics and tetanus shots have run out. 

But it’s not just medicines they lack. Thousands of babies in the area have not had baby formula for three months. Supplies ran out so they are being fed on cows’ milk. It gives them diarrhea and leaves many severely underweight. 

But this clinic now serves as much more than a GP’s surgery. When the bombs fall it’s a field hospital. On an almost daily basis people are rushed in with massive blood loss, head trauma or punctured lungs. One afternoon we watched him dig a lump of shrapnel out of one man’s back. With the right equipment he said he could have saved this man. Instead the doctor did the best he could and put him in a van to the nearest hospital. It’s an hour’s drive along dangerous roads. He died on the way. 

These are not fighters shot or blown up in the conflict they are people living under the misery of a daily bombing campaign. One night the doctor sucks on his cigarette holder, his only luxury, and asks why the world has deserted the Syrian people.

I start to talk world politics and Security Council resolutions and then I stop. Getting medicines and medical equipment to these people has nothing to do with international diplomacy. This is a humanitarian disaster. Innocent people are dying every day. 

Follow Sue Turton on Twitter: @sueturtonaje