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The silent war

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In June 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) employee Diala Ghassan visited Tal Abyad hospital in Raqqa governorate, northern Syria.

Here, she describes her day with the patients and staff.

“Women are the revolution” and “I will not emigrate” signs welcome you to northern Syria. Along both sides of the roads are fields of wheat and olive trees, grown and harvested by the residents. At first, you don’t realise you’re in a conflict zone – or not until you’ve driven for some distance and start to see the many roadside pictures and posters of those who have died in the fighting. From then on, it’s impossible to ignore the signs: we drive alongside a large wall, built recently to separate Turkey from northern Syria; other walls have gashes from bombs and there are ruined buildings everywhere. Some towns and villages have been almost totally destroyed by years of war. But despite the devastation, Syria has a specific smell which reminds me of my childhood: a union of fresh soil and newly baked bread.

I am on my way to visit Tal Abyad hospital, in Raqqa governorate, just south of the Turkish border. Around the corner from the hospital’s entrance, I see the rubble from a building that was obliterated during fighting in the area. The same bomb that destroyed this building also affected the hospital. For a couple of months, the hospital was barely functional, as the fabric of the building was damaged and most of its medical equipment either destroyed or looted. After the fighting stopped, the hospital had to be renovated before it could start running again.

In recent months, MSF has been providing support to the hospital’s paediatric, maternity and surgical wards. Once again, people come to the hospital from nearby towns and villages, as well as from places up to 120 km away, including Raqqa, Maskaneh, Hazeema, Deir Ezzor and Al Tabqa. 

The surrounding streets are full of rubble and half-repaired buildings, and echo with the barking of stray dogs. The sheer number of dogs in the area surprises me at first, but I discover that most people here were sheep farmers, and generally farmers have a dog or two to protect their livestock. When people fled the war in these dark years for safer areas, some managed to take their livestock with them, but others left their animals behind, thinking they would return in a few days or weeks. Syrians tell me that now these dogs have become very dangerous. They were left behind with no food, and when the streets filled with dead bodies, the dogs started eating the bodies. “Now, they are uncontrollable and dangerous,” one man tells me, “but we can’t kill them because we already have so many dead in this country.”

I leave him to his work, and continue through the hospital. Both the inpatient and paediatric wards are bursting with patients and their caretakers, all from different areas of northern Syria. Many are suffering from acute watery diarrhoea and respiratory infections.

Walking some more through the corridors of this hospital of tears, I arrive at the adults’ ward. Most of the patients are asleep but, at the far end, one young man is awake. I notice that his leg has been amputated. Hesitantly, I approach him and ask what happened.

“I stepped on a mine while I was on a motorbike with a friend,” says the young man, who is 21. “My friend died and I got injured. Earlier that day, my friend had come to my house to tell me about a house that was bombed by an airstrike, killing 14 members of one family. We needed to see if we could save anyone. We hopped on my bike, my friend sat behind me, and we drove towards the bombed house. That’s when a mine exploded underneath us.” He is silent for a couple of seconds before continuing, “He wanted to save someone’s life but he lost his own.”

A long silence fills the room after he tells me his tale. I wish him a fast recovery, offer my condolences and quickly make my way out of the hospital; I cannot bear to see or hear any more stories of war and tragedy.

Between my own memories of living under occupation in a warzone, and these people’s mental and physical wounds, I am lost for words. For a couple of minutes I lose control over myself. As I walk out, I hide my tears behind my sunglasses, which act as a shield for me in this moment.

Before leaving the building, I turn to take one final look at the hospital. The medical teams are still busy, treating patients, distributing medicine and installing machines.

This is just a single day in a hospital in northern Syria. I cannot begin to conceive what it is must be like to have lived through these seven years of war.