Translating Humanitarian Emergency into Medical Aid in Syria

Claire Glasscoe


Search & Rescue

The hash tag associated with the image on the right is #Hands_Off_The_Heroes, and refers to the 'White Helmets' or Syrian Civil Defence (SCD) teams who are themselves targeted while attempting to save the lives of others. Made up of volunteer men and women these teams converge on sites where explosions have occurred to rescue those injured and trapped under the rubble before transporting them to the nearest healthcare facility for treatment. External advisors issue warnings to be cautious about approaching the area because the notorious 'double tap' technique signals the danger of a second missile following a few minutes later designed to slaughter those trying to help. Despite these warnings the whole community instinctively rushes to the devastation in the wake of a bomb blast, as the thought of women and children trapped under the rubble is stronger than the desire for self-preservation.

In the case of 3-year old 'Mahmoud,' his mother ran to the place where he was playing when the explosion happened. She saw he had severe injuries to both legs, gathered him up in her arms and ran with him to the nearby hospital. It was in fact the hospital that was the intended target of the bombing raid that destroyed her home in Idleb, but the missiles missed their target and at that moment she didn't give it a second thought.

Surgery in a War Zone

'Saafia' (pictured left) was injured in an aerial bombing raid on her neighbourhood in the countryside of Hama. She was at home with her mother and siblings at the time, while her father was out working as a plumber. On hearing about the bombing he rushed home to find 'Saafia' and her mother had been injured by the blast that damaged their home. His wife was injured in the shoulder while 'Saafia' received shrapnel wounds to her back. He took them both to the nearest hospital. It was not clear at first the extent of Saafia's wounds, which seemed to be superficial and only became apparent later when she was unable to walk. A subsequent MRI scan showed pieces of shrapnel had perforated her spine and would require more delicate surgery than was available in opposition held Syria.

How do field and municipal hospitals under extreme pressure and often also under fire manage large numbers of complex and devastating injuries caused by explosive weapons? One volunteer surgeon working with the Syrian American Medical Society in Aleppo describes it as 'descend[ing] into the depths of hell.' The testimonies of those who needed urgent medical attention and those healthcare staff attempting to provide such care are related here.

Internal Displacement

If a family is fortunate enough to suffer no injuries in an aerial bombing raid or rocket attack yet caught in the cross fire, in all likelihood their home may be destroyed or the neighbourhood where they and their family has lived for decades becomes uninhabitable. The obvious dangers in staying, forces families to leave with few belongings. Then they join nearly half the entire population of Syria in fleeing their homes (10.9 of 23 million total). If they don't have the capacity to cross the Syrian border to a neighbouring country, they become part of the 6.6 million who remain in Syria as internally displaced people (IDPs) living rough, in temporary accommodation or in refugee camps (OCHA Humanitarian snapshot figures as of 31/12/15) . [Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre] What's more, many families are displaced multiple times so they are unable to settle.

The image right is of Rojova families trying to reach the border with Turkey - photograph from 'The Unnamed Syrian Women' Photo Gallery 08/03/16