Syria: Raqqa’s besieged residents deprived of urgent medical care

Raqqa – Sick and injured civilians within and outside Raqqa city are facing major difficulties obtaining urgent lifesaving medical care due to the ongoing battle to control the northeastern Syrian city, says international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

MSF calls on all warring parties and their allies to ensure the protection of civilians and allow access to medical care and medical evacuation for the war-wounded. MSF also reiterates the importance of facilitating access to northeast Syria for international demining organisations to carry out their activities so that residents can return to their homes safely and aid organisations can provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance.

“Patients tell us large numbers of sick and wounded people are trapped inside Raqqa city with little or no access to medical care and scant chance of escaping the city,” says Vanessa Cramond, MSF medical coordinator for Turkey and north Syria.

“On 29 July, in the space of a few hours, our team treated four people, including a five year old, who sustained gunshot wounds as they were fleeing Raqqa city. We are extremely concerned for the lives of those who can’t get out.”

The limited number of patients treated by MSF who managed to flee  Raqqa city say that the only way to leave is by being smuggled out, causing dangerous delays in accessing urgent medical treatment.

“Some of our patients have been trapped behind frontlines for days or even weeks,” says Cramond.

“If they are lucky, they will have received some basic medical care inside the city, but by the time they reach our hospitals, their wounds have often become seriously infected and saving their limbs is seldom possible. By contrast, the patients who arrive from villages around Raqqa city with acute medical emergencies or trauma injuries have crossed the frontlines relatively quickly.”

Speaking on the situation in Raqqa, a 41-year-old patient with shrapnel wounds to his chest who fled Raqqa after losing seven family members says: “In Raqqa city, if you don’t die from airstrikes, you die by mortar fire; if not by mortars then by sniper shots; if not by snipers, then by an explosive device.”

Following an airstrike, the patient’s mother was trapped beneath the rubble of a collapsed building for 15 hours. After being dug out, she was able to receive some basic medical care and leave the city.

Since June, MSF medical teams in northeast Syria have treated 415 patients from Raqqa city and surrounding villages. Most patients are civilians with conflict-related injuries caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines, unexploded ordnance, shrapnel and gunshot wounds.

Beyond the city, in Raqqa governorate, many people are returning to their villages, but the conflict’s effects are pervasive. Towns and villages are littered with explosive remnants of war including IEDs, booby traps and unexploded ordnance.

“There are large numbers of residual explosive devices in these towns that are preventing people from returning to their normal lives,” says Cramond.

“For example in Hazima, to the north of Raqqa city, our teams resumed some medical services this week in a local school, but were forced to put this on hold after the building was found to be contaminated with mines and booby traps.”

MSF is one of a handful of medical organisations responding to people’s acute needs in Raqqa governorate and northeast Syria. MSF operates eight ambulances close to the frontlines, in partnership with local health authorities, with collection points to the north, east and west of Raqqa city. It also supports an advanced medical post outside Raqqa city, where patients are stabilised before being transported to hospital in either Tal Abyad or Kobanê, more than 100 km away. MSF teams are also running a clinic in Ain Issa camp, and working in several newly accessible areas in northeast Syria that were under Islamic State (IS) control until recently.