Al-Amal hospital lies roughly 50 feet from the Syrian border in Reyhanli, Turkey. It is the only hospital run by Syrian NGOs with approval from the Turkish authorities to treat victims of the Syrian conflict, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, an NGO that supports the hospital.
Each day, patients and their families cross the border, seeking treatment from the volunteer staff at Al-Amal, many of whom are refugees themselves.
The Syrian civil war, which began with a crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators by President Bashar al-Assad‘s government forces in 2011, has resulted in the deaths of more than 465,000 Syrians.
More than a million people have been injured and at least 12 million have been forced to leave their homes.
When they are bombing hospitals, that means there are no lines. They are killing everyone. When I felt that we couldn't protect ourselves as doctors, I couldn't continue in Syria.
PHR and other watchdogs have accused the Syrian government of intentionally targeting medical workers and facilities throughout the conflict.
In this climate, many health workers have fled the country, offering their services to places like Al-Amal, which provide treatment for those with nowhere else to turn to.
Here, patients and volunteers from the hospital tell stories of war, violence, and futures put on hold by a conflict that shows few signs of resolution.
Dr Hisham Bismar
Hisham is a Syrian-American doctor, based in the US. He travels to Turkey to volunteer as a surgeon in Al-Amal hospital.
“I think it was footage of a father carrying his son with his arm completely amputated. That’s what actually instigated me to contact the Syrian American Medical Society, and they put me in touch with the facility in Turkey.
Soon after I arrived, they gave me a clinic. I started having one patient after another. Initially I was overwhelmed by the number of patients coming in with very complex problems, and also by the human side behind it. Several of these patients had stories behind their injuries, which also adds to the emotional stress … you don’t want to base your medical decision on emotions.
We keep repeating the same mistake: Srebrenica, Rwanda, Darfur, and now Syria.
The thing which actually struck me the most and affected me the most was seeing the children. When it starts affecting children, that’s where I draw the line. I think in this war you had a whole generation which was exposed to massive trauma. It’s going to affect how they grow, how they think.
My kids don’t quite grasp what I’m doing. They ask, “why is there a war over there?” I tell them sometimes people try to inflict suffering on other people and I just try to see if I can make things a little bit better. Whenever I look at my kids, I have that feeling that I really need to go back.
We keep repeating the same mistake: Srebrenica, Rwanda, Darfur, and now Syria. It’s just the same problem keeps happening over and over again and we’re not doing anything different.
I don’t think what I’m doing is really anything special in particular, but I think every little bit helps. I know if I was in that situation I would like to have somebody who would be able to provide care for me. I’m fortunate enough to be able to help, regardless whether it’s big or small. That doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that I’m doing something.”
Mohammed* is a fighter with the Free Syrian Army. He visits Al-Amal after being injured by gunfire.
“I was covering for my colleague. A bullet came and hit my hand. It took four days for me to reach Turkey, because in Syrian hospitals … they will kill me if they catch me. It happened with some friends.
We never imagined we would become fighters. We are citizens. We are not terrorists. Everybody should understand: we are just defending ourselves.
If Assad, his army or the people loyal to him know my real name, they will kill my parents directly, because I’m fighting him.
When our revolution started there were no guns, no weapons. It was a matter of some boards, flags saying: “Assad go out” – that’s it. Then, rockets, bombs, tanks shooting us everywhere.
A bomb fell down from a helicopter. Assad’s army threw it down in a market. The people were just trying to buy some food and go back home.
I’ve seen the pieces of them. Bread with blood, vegetables with blood, and parts of their bodies spread everywhere.
And again when the ambulance came, they sent a rocket from the MiG [a Russian-made aircraft]. The ambulance team were all killed.
We never imagined we would become fighters. We are citizens. We are not terrorists. We are not terrorists. Everybody should understand: we are just defending ourselves – that’s it.”
Promise began working as an administrator at Al-Amal in 2015, after arriving in Turkey as a refugee in 2015. She remains hopeful that she will be able to return home one day.
“In 2011, I was studying for the baccalaureate exam. The demonstrations started, and we joined them. We were all communicating through a network and I disseminated the news through the network.
They told me my name was at the security checkpoints. What bothered me and scared me the most is when they arrested girls at roadblocks and abused them and locked them away. To die by a bullet is better than being arrested by the regime.
This bracelet is a symbol of the revolution, that we will continue going forward no matter what. It means freedom.”
Z* is a volunteer surgeon at Al-Amal. In his work, he treats many young children affected by the Syrian conflict.
“The way that we’re seeing the kids, there are signs of distress and trauma.
They’re clearly malnourished. They’ve lost that bright smile. It’s difficult to get them to engage with you and I can tell it’s kind of hard for them to trust.
There was a young boy. He was hit by a sniper with a bullet, it crossed his spinal cord, severing his spinal cord, and putting this young boy in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
What really got my attention was that this guy, this little boy was hit by a sniper. So there’s somebody out there that has the ability to look through a telescope, and know they’re shooting a 12 year old boy.
There are times when they aim for pregnant women, and aim to shoot the baby. What were the political affiliations of those children in the womb? What kind of threat were they to anybody?”
A Y is a Turkish businessman who crosses the border as many as 10 times each day, bringing wounded people into Turkey for medical help.
“When I turned 20, I started thinking about the meaning of life. I said to myself ‘I want to help the oppressed’.
I wake up at 6am and I go to the Atma crossing [on the Syria-Turkey border near Afrin], I pick up seven patients and seven of their companions. I’m like a bridge from Syria to Turkey, a bridge with an ambulance.
I have never given any bribes to the Turkish border guards. For example, I say: ‘you’re a good person, look at this sick, injured person. For the sake of humanity, let him in.
If you believe in God, this is your Muslim brother, let him in. If you’re a Christian, for the sake of Jesus please let him in. If you’re Jewish, for the sake of Moses please let him in. Just let him in.’
This work gives me joy, I haven’t found anything that brings me more joy.”
Abdullah’s mother brought her five-year-old son to Al-Amal after he was hit with shrapnel. The family plan to return to Syria following Abdullah’s operation.
“It was Friday, I was busy at home with his brothers. Abdullah heard the voices of kids in the street so he went out to play with them.
I don’t know for sure what kind of shell it was but there was a big explosion. He lost function in his left hand. His left leg and trunk were full of shrapnel. My feelings were uncontrollable.
I hope that God heals him and all the children and heals Syria from this situation.”
A S D
A S D* is a recently-arrived volunteer at Al-Amal. Before seeking refuge in Turkey, he worked as a surgeon in Syria, often under bombardment.
“Once they put one car beside the hospital and they bombed it. They told us ‘we will bomb your hospital while you are treating the rebel people’.
When they are bombing hospitals, that means there are no lines. They are killing everyone.
When I felt that we couldn’t protect ourselves as doctors, I couldn’t continue in Syria.
One time, a bomb fell on the street and there was one guy, they brought him to me and his spleen was out. Really, I did the splenectomy while the patient was on the table and there was no anesthesia: without anesthesia, without anything. Just I tied the splenic artery and removed the spleen, even when the patient was still awake. Because I needed to save him.
We saw many amputated legs, amputated arms, injuries to the abdomen, the chest, you will see the chest open. You cannot delete these images.”
*Not his/her real name.
Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.