Border hospitals overwhelmed by Russian-backed assault on Syria’s Aleppo

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

Hospitals near the Syrian front line have come under attack and been overwhelmed by severely wounded victims of Russian airstrikes, taking the area’s health system to the verge of collapse, health workers say.

French charity Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), which runs six hospitals in Syria and provides support for another 153 health facilities across the country, said medical workers in the area had been forced to flee for their lives.

“Azaz district has seen some of the heaviest tolls of this brutal war, and yet again we are seeing health care under siege,” said Muskilda Zancada, MSF head of mission, Syria, referring to the area around the main border crossing north of Aleppo, where tens of thousands of civilians have arrived in recent days.

“We are extremely concerned about the situation in the south of the district, where medical staff, fearing for their lives, have been forced to flee and hospitals have either been completely closed, or can only offer limited emergency services.”

An advance to encircle Aleppo by government troops and their militia allies backed up by heavy Russian airstrikes has brought one of the biggest changes of momentum of the five-year war, creating a new humanitarian emergency in recent weeks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 506 people had died since the regime launched a major offensive in Aleppo province on Feb. 1, including 23 children killed in Russian airstrikes.

A senior U.S. official charged Wednesday that the airstrikes are benefiting the Islamic State group. “What Russia’s doing is directly enabling ISIL,” Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the group in Syria and Iraq, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Secretary of State John Kerry has taken the lead over the past week in accusing Russia of derailing efforts to get Syrian peace talks going by carrying out airstrikes around Aleppo in support of a government offensive.

Kerry and some 20 foreign ministers, including Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, are meeting in Munich on Thursday to try to arrange a cease-fire and humanitarian access to Syrian cities besieged by government forces.

The United Nations has raised the alarm over the fate of hundreds of thousands of civilians who could be trapped without food or medical supplies inside what was once Syria’s largest city if government forces succeed in cutting it off.

Doctors say they have been overwhelmed by injuries caused by the airstrikes, which Moscow says have only targeted Islamist militants but which Western countries say have caused widespread civilian casualties.

“We are seeing new types of injuries due to Russian airstrikes,” said Mahmoud Mustafa, director of the Independent Doctors Association, a Turkish-based Syrian group that runs a field hospital in Bab al-Salama on the Syrian side of the main border crossing north of the Aleppo, near the town of Azaz.

“We are increasingly seeing what we call multiple-trauma injuries because of the bombs and the heavy weapons they are using. There are large burn cases, lots of amputations and internal traumas,” he told a reporter in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Another official from the group, who had just returned from Syria, said Russian airstrikes had hit two hospitals in the area in recent weeks in Hraytan and Anadan. Both are now out of service, putting more strain on the remaining hospitals.

“Yesterday 2,500 new IDPs (internally displaced people) came to the Bab al-Salama border. We will not be able to cover their basic needs,” said the second IDA official, who asked not to be identified because his work on both sides of the border. “If the Russian airstrikes and the fighting continues at this pace, it will be a total disaster in a few weeks.”

Emergency cases are brought to the Bab al-Salama hospital before being sent to Turkey, which has closed the border to refugees but is letting in the severely wounded. The hospital has three surgery rooms, 18 doctors and 24 beds, and is completely overloaded.

“The severity of Russian airstrikes combined with the fact that this war has been going on for a very long time makes the medical response on the ground extremely difficult,” Mustafa said.

In Kilis, inside Turkey near the border, the 47-bed post-surgery ward of another field hospital was filled half with fighters and half with civilians. Many of the wounded had amputated limbs, severe burns, or had lost one or both eyes. Patients were wheeled to the garden in wheelchairs.

A 5-year-old girl named Sheima had lost her eyes when struck by a stray bullet in Aleppo and had to have brain surgery.

MSF said only four of the nine hospitals in the Azaz district were still functioning.

“The other five closed in recent days due to fears of proximity to front lines and staff leaving the hospitals because of fears. In the IDP camps near the border, there are functioning health facilities but there is a lot of pressure on them because of the new arrivals,” Zancada said.

Ahmad al-Muhammad, a pharmacist working with MSF in Azaz, said Azaz was “not prepared to receive this large number of displaced people, but thousands of families have come to the area, and there were (already) eight camps before the troubles last week.”

The influx of people has caused severe pressure on food and medical services and a new camp of around 550 tents has been built in the town, he said.

“There are people now sleeping in the streets until tents are built. Every day there are more displaced people coming,” Muhammad said.

MSF said it wants all attacks on medical facilities to stop.

Last week, an MSF-supported hospital in Tafas, in the Deraa region of southern Syria, was hit by an airstrike, killing three people and wounding six, including one nurse. It is now operational again as it was only partially damaged, MSF said.

The charity said it had seen a trend in recent weeks of hospitals increasingly being hit by airstrikes in both the south and the north.