In Turkish border town, Syrian doctors and other refugees plan the future

 

REYHANLI, Turkey

Operating rooms and intensive care units are being outfitted in an abandoned customs house located just a few yards from here, across the Syrian border in rebel-controlled territory at the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Rebel fighters and civilians with gruesome injuries arrive every day, in desperate need of medical treatment. Even though Syrian warplanes have dropped bombs nearby, and international intelligence officials warn that those bombs could soon be equipped with chemical warheads, Syrian internist Monzer Yazji and the doctors he is working with say they are determined to open their 60-bed hospital soon.

"We are in the final stage of the collapse of the regime, and we have to be ready from Day One," said Yazji, who lived in the United States for 20 years and runs a Syrian medical relief charity based in Turkey.

The hospital, he says, will repudiate everything Syrian President Bashar Assad represents. That means treating captured security forces members who fought against the rebels to prop up Assad's government, the same government that has arrested, tortured and killed physicians who provided medical assistance to protesters and rebels over the course of the 20-month-old civil conflict.

"We are not like them," said Yazji, speaking in his unmarked office in an apartment building in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border.

The town is suspended between war and peace. It is filled with dreamers who are forging ahead with plans for new hospitals and town councils, civil courts and police departments, even trash collection, in parts of northwestern Syria that are controlled by rebel forces. It also is a place steeped in pain. Hundreds of wounded Syrians have been brought across the border, in need of specialized care that, right now, is unavailable here.

Reyhanli's 60,000 residents are mostly Sunni Arabs with close familial ties to the Syrians who live on the other side of the mountain, beyond razor-wire fencing that marks the border. They have largely welcomed the 15,000 Syrians who have sought sanctuary among them — a stark contrast to Turkish cities with large populations of Alawites, members of Assad's Shiite-affiliated sect, where demonstrators have come out in support of the Syrian president.

Local officials have turned a blind eye to Syrians selling used cars of questionable origin, sporting Bulgarian license plates, from a vacant lot next to a rehabilitation center. They have accommodated more than 20 international humanitarian groups looking for quiet ways to donate medicine and food to Syrians without drawing attention, because not all are registered with the Turkish government.

"We come on tourist visas," said a worker for a Europe-based nongovernmental organization who spoke on the condition that the group not be named. "We make a few contacts here . . . Then we get to know some people who work at the border. If they like you, they'll let you do your work. It's all very personal."

At the same time, residents are making money off the refugees. Many landlords have increased rents five-fold, and merchants have pasted up hand-written storefront signs in Arabic, to attract refugees who have a little money to spend.

Every day, 10 to 20 people are brought across the border — children with bullets in their skulls, old men whose feet are swollen and red with gaping wounds, young men paralyzed from the waist down because of shrapnel or bullets.

The three rehabilitation centers in Reyhanli are staffed by Syrian physicians, many of whom left their country to avoid arrest for treating rebels and civilian protesters. Most do not have licenses to provide more than rudimentary care. They fear torture and death if they return to Syria.

"This is the first time a government has targeted physicians," said Yazji, who as head of the umbrella Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations makes periodic forays into besieged Syrian towns. He said that about 50 Syrian doctors have been arrested and killed since the uprising began. There were signs of torture on their bodies when they were returned to their families, he said.

Much of the humanitarian aid in Reyhanli is backed by donations from affluent Syrian expatriates. A small hospital, for example, is funded by the owner of Orient TV — a prominent Syrian opposition figure whose network broadcasts from Dubai.

There is bitterness that more international aid has not been forthcoming. "We understand not providing weapons," said Yasser Said, a Syrian lawyer who manages an 80-bed rehabilitation center in the town. "But why not medical supplies?"

Hussein al-Mustafa, a surgeon who said he fled the northwestern Syrian province of Aleppo to avoid arrest for helping protesters, ticked off some of the needs. One rehabilitation center secured an X-ray machine, but it was so old that doctors could not find film for it. The center cannot afford Clexane, a medicine that stops blood from forming potentially life-threatening clots. There are far too few wheelchairs and just a week's supply of the painkiller Gabapentin for the 25 patients who need it.

In a room painted a milky green, 12-year-old Salah Hussein Gayari lay in a bed, with two metal fragments lodged in his spine and another in his blinded right eye. He is paralyzed below the waist.

Salah, who has soccer in his soul and wants to be a doctor when he grows up, said he was heading to the market in his village of Abu Dhour, near Idlib, when an artillery shell fell nearby. Neighbors drove him to Turkey to be operated on.

Two older brothers fighting with the rebel forces left to keep watch over him. Doctors told them that Salah needs more specialized care to remove the remaining metal from his body. "Can you take him somewhere out of the country?" the brother asked a visitor.

Yazji said he will move his organization's headquarters to the hospital at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing as soon as it opens. He believes that the Assad regime will collapse within weeks, not months, and has told his wife that the next time they meet will be in Syria.

Wassim Taha, head of the Syrian Organization for Refugees, thinks it will take much longer. But he, too, is planning for the future. Operating out of an apartment office equipped with two laptops and a desk, his focus has shifted from coordinating aid to building institutions.

More than 30 civilian councils have been formed in northern Syria that can distribute funds and other help, Taha said. He is trying to get lawyers to establish civil courts and is seeking money to pay the salaries of lawyers, judges and police officers. Taha said that several European governments have provided financial backing for the building of civil institutions but that the U.S. government has not.

"If it takes a long time, the extremists will take over," said Taha, a former fashion designer who was involved in opposition politics for many years. "It will destroy Syria."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas