Syria’s wounded seek rehabilitation in Lebanon

Tripoli’s trauma centre offers specialised treatment for victims of bombs and explosives.

syria conflict in lebanon
The Syrian conflict has affected Lebanon heavily, as many of the injured have sought treatment in the neighbouring country [AP]
Correction2 Sep 2015
An earlier version of this article referred to the ICRC's centre in Tripoli as the War Traumatology Training Centre. That was incorrect. It is called the Weapon Traumatology Training Centre (WTTC).

Tripoli, Lebanon – In 2011, Zaher had a bright future ahead of him. He had completed his law degree and finished his compulsory military service with the Syrian army. 

But then the conflict in Syria started, and employment opportunities disappeared, forcing him to spend most of his time at home in the mountainous city of Yabroud, about 80km north of Damascus.

In 2014, his house was hit by a missile. Thirty-year-old Zaher, who did not provide a last name, was home at the time and lost his left leg in the attack. He immediately fled to neighbouring Lebanon, where he sought treatment in the southern Lebanese border town of Rashaya, before eventually being moved to the northern city of Tripoli.

The only thing I want to do is be able to sit on a chair unassisted. All I want from God is the ability to walk again.

by Um Hamada, Syrian patient

More than a year has passed since the attack, and Zaher is slowly recovering, thanks to the rehabilitation services offered at the Weapon Traumatology Training Centre (WTTC), set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in two hospitals in Tripoli. It is the only centre in the region to offer emergency, reconstructive, and rehabilitation services for victims wounded by weapons.

Hobbling around on one leg, with his “good leg” encased in a metal cage, Zaher is preparing to receive a prosthetic leg eventually.

“Life continues,” he told Al Jazeera. “Of course, everything has changed now, but you learn to move on. I’m trying really hard to do everything on my own and not ask for help.”

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His situation is not unique. Since the opening of the WTTC in September 2014, the centre has received approximately 200 inpatients, all suffering from weapon-inflicted injuries. The minimum stay is around three to four months in order to accommodate the design and application of prosthetic limbs, therapy, and rehabilitation. According to one member of the ICRC, the type of wounds being treated are often caused by bomb blasts, which are considered to be more complex than gunshot wounds.

The ICRC makes a point of not distinguishing between patients’ nationalities: Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians alike are all being treated. The ICRC also treats individuals who participated in the fighting in Syria and then fled to Lebanon – a sensitive issue among Lebanese, who are bitterly divided between those who support the armed opposition and those who support the Syrian government.

“When wounded, we don’t care who you are or where you are from; you will be treated,” Fabrizio Carboni, head of the ICRC delegation in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera.

Doctors often have to address or rectify issues caused by previous hasty medical treatment [Nour Samaha/Al Jazeera]
Doctors often have to address or rectify issues caused by previous hasty medical treatment [Nour Samaha/Al Jazeera]

Potential patients go through a screening process that includes assessments by several types of surgeons to determine what sort of treatment can be offered.

“We’re dealing with patients who have already gone through several surgeries, and many of them were not conducted properly,” explained Paul Ley, an orthopaedic surgeon with the ICRC based at the centre in Tripoli. “Doctors [in the warzones] tend to use plates and fixations to deal with weapon wounds and are not trained in war surgery, so it ends up causing a lot of long-term issues.”

He cited the recent case of a Syrian man who had been injured in clashes, and during the course of treatment, a metal rod was inserted into his thigh, running the length of his leg. “The rod itself was encased in cement. It really looked as if it was done in the back of a garage,” Ley said. Suffering from extreme pain, the young man fled to Lebanon and sought medical assistance. “We had to amputate the whole leg as a result.”

While Lebanon is very familiar with war injuries, having suffered its own 15-year civil war and a number of subsequent conflicts, there is still a need for specialised services, especially as the nature of the Syrian conflict evolves. According to Carboni, the idea behind such a centre is to provide expert assistance and treatment in an area where there is continual conflict.

“There are specifics to treating these sorts of patients,” he said. “Ideally, we would like to get to a point where we can transfer the know-how and turn Lebanon into a reference centre for war surgery, as the environment is fertile here for this sort of development.”

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While Lebanon’s borders with Syria have been all but closed to refugees since October 2014, the centre still has many Syrian patients, including those suffering from the botched surgeries they received in Syria before fleeing. Um Hamada, a grandmother in her 60s, has been at the centre for several months now, seeking rehabilitation after her foot was amputated.

Originally from eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Um Hamada was outside her house buying goods some time in 2011 when a missile landed next to her.

“I couldn’t understand what happened. All I know is there was some kind of explosion,” she told Al Jazeera, tearing up as she remembered her life in Syria. “God wrote that we have to leave. He decided our fate.”

A few months after having her leg stitched up and pins put in at a local hospital in Damascus, she fled with her family to Lebanon, with the pain in her foot becoming increasingly worse. Once in Lebanon, she sought medical assistance, and doctors decided her foot needed to be amputated. She was admitted to the WTTC just a few months ago, where she has slowly started to see real improvements in her condition.

“She was incredibly depressed and suffered from phantom pain,” explained Bilal Hassan, the nurse who takes care of her. “Following her improvement, we’re prepping her for a prosthetic limb.”

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“I’m not asking for anything. The only thing I want to do is be able to sit on a chair unassisted,” said Um Hamada. “All I want from God is the ability to walk again.”

Even some who managed to escape Syria unscathed have suffered weapon wounds in Lebanon. The Barakat family, who fled from their home in Aleppo four years ago and went to southern Lebanon struggled to find a place to live. Finally settling into an old house that had been damaged by the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, they desperately tried to make it their home.

But a few weeks ago, nine-year-old Khaled, the eldest of the five Barakat children, found what he thought was a toy under a chest of drawers. He pulled it out to play with it as his two brothers joined him. Within seconds their new toy exploded, killing Khaled and severely wounding his two brothers and their father, Jamil. It turned out to be an unexploded cluster bomb dropped by the Israeli military in 2006.

After receiving emergency treatment at a hospital in southern Lebanon, the children were rushed to Tripoli to receive specialised treatment and surgery at the WTTC to remove the shrapnel that had become embedded in their bodies.

“When we came to Lebanon, we never even thought we would face a bomb here,” said Iman Barakat, Khaled’s mother. Sobbing, she added: “I just wish I could see Khaled again.”

Source: Al Jazeera