Need Overwhelms Makeshift Clinic in Syria Camp.


2 May 2011
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KHIRBET AL-JOUZ, Syria — Mohamed Marei awoke to the wails of a sick child arriving at his makeshift medical clinic, where he and half a dozen other men were living, having fled their homes to escape a violent government crackdown in the country’s rural northwest.

The child was suffering with diarrhea and a fever, like many others here, said Mr. Marei, who gave him an injection and sent him away. Another child then came in with a bandaged leg, soon followed by Noufa al-Ali and her 27-year-old son, Abu Mohamed. He held an empty IV bag over her arm, but it could not be replaced. The clinic had run out, so Mr. Marei removed the needle and threw the bag in a corner.

Ms. Ali had been in good health until “all the killing and death” that drove them here, said her son. They have resisted crossing the border to Turkey, where aid organizations run formal refugee camps, because they want to return to their home in the village of Ashtouria. “But we won’t go back until this regime falls,” said Ms. Ali, 48.

There are no indications that will happen soon. In the meantime, activists say there is an acute need for medical care in the makeshift refugee camps scattered on the Syrian side of the border. Khirbet al-Jouz is one camp of many, and the demand for treatment here strains its capacity. So Mr. Marei, a pharmacist with a fractured shoulder and little medical training, struggles to make do.

The more than 10,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey receive medical care from the Turkish Red Crescent, a local version of the Red Cross. Life is far more difficult for the thousands who remain in Syria and seek shelter in forests and fruit orchards on the floor of a valley ringed by rugged mountains.

They live in abandoned buildings, cars or clumps of shabby tents assembled from tarps and blankets. Their camps are administered by no one and receive little assistance. Turkey began delivering food and bottled water to Khirbet al-Jouz this week, but refugee leaders say their assistance does not extend to medical aid.

“There are many serious medical cases in the camp which need the attention of a doctor,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who has conducted research in the camps of the Syrian border zone. “Given the unsanitary conditions and the heat in the camp, it really could put people’s lives at risk.”

Mr. Marei’s clinic is in an abandoned two-room concrete structure on the edge of an apple orchard. Its floors are strewn with thin mattresses, blankets and tiny glass teacups, and many of its windows are broken. One room houses more than half a dozen men who sprawl across its floors at night and then sit in its open air entryway during the day.

They spend their time drinking cups of strong coffee and watching Arabic news channels for any mention of the popular uprising that has gripped Syria since March and has posed an unprecedented challenge to four decades of rule by the family of President Bashar al-Assad.

The clinic’s second room serves as both an examination space and a pharmacy. Most of the space is taken up by a pile of supplies smuggled in over the mountains from Turkey or brought here by Mr. Marei, who grabbed what he could from his pharmacy when he fled his hometown of Jisr al-Shoughour before an assault by government tanks and troops.

Diapers and a few bottles of milk sit in one corner, but there is no way to provide prenatal care for the 25 pregnant women here, Mr. Marei said. More than 50 people have heart problems and three have kidney ailments, but there is no medicine. There is a crate of asthma medicine but only one inhaler, shared by more than 30 people.

“There was not time to take everything,” he said. “When the army came I took what I could and left quickly.”

Idlib is a rural province, and in many of its towns and villages pharmacists provide many people’s primary medical care. Mr. Marei said he was “used to playing both roles,” but was worried by the enormous need and the lack of supplies.

He also lacks the training to provide anything beyond basic care, or the equipment to perform surgical procedures.

“There are things I see here that I do not know how to treat,” he said.

Nevertheless, he does what he can, sometimes working from sunrise until after midnight. In the rush to flee Jisr al-Shoughour, he was injured when he fell off the back of a crowded pickup truck, fracturing his right shoulder. He has nothing stronger than over-the-counter painkillers to treat the symptoms.

“I did not know the situation would be this bad or last this long,” he said. “I have been here for 10 days, and I only brought with me enough medicine for one day or two.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross and its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, announced Tuesday that the government had agreed to grant them “wider access to areas of unrest,” although the agreement has yet to be carried out.

Despite the severe shortcomings at Mr. Marei’s clinic, few here seemed pleased at the prospect of Red Crescent doctors arriving. The people here are deeply wary of their government, and rumors spread Tuesday that the Red Crescent had been infiltrated by the mukhabarat, the secret police. Mr. Marei said he thought people would trust only “their doctors from home, before the revolution,” and would be afraid to talk to the Red Crescent.

Ibrahim, a driver who brings in the wounded and takes people to the border, was more direct.

“Do you think a government that kills its own people is really going to let the Red Crescent come here to help us?” he asked. “Of course not. They are mukhabarat. They will come to see this place and collect intelligence on what we are doing here. Maybe they will attack us.”

-New york times
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