‘Cage-like devices enclose limbs, holding bones together'
Conflict injuries fail to curb the human spirit in Turkish border city of Reyhanli
In the town of Reyhanli near the Turkish-Syrian border a protester shouts slogans against Turkey’s prime minister Tayyip Erdogan during a demonstration against the Turkish government’s policy on Syria. Photograph: Reuters/Umit Bektas
His bare feet strapped with white bandages to the pedals of a rehabilitation machine, 12-year-old Ali (not real name) tests the returning muscles in his legs, frail after the 20 days of near-paralysis he suffered after he was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle while playing in the street in his home city of Aleppo.
For over a month he and his father have called the rehabilitation centre of the Orient Hospital home, a clinic run by Syrian doctors on the outskirts of the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.
Two small scars near the nape of his neck mark the entry wounds of the bullets, which came dangerously close to permanently damaging his spine. He gingerly flexes his hands, which his father, standing close by his side, says are not yet strong enough even to clasp a glass of water. For 20 days he was bed-ridden, unable to move his hands or legs, but finally he is regaining movement as the damage to his body heals.
“It felt like an electric shock,” says Ali, continuing to peddle with a grin as he describes the sensation after being shot, during a clash between the Syrian government forces and the Free Syrian Army.
His father says he doesn’t know which side the bullet came from, but he curses Assad for his son’s injuries.
Despite his experience, Ali is adamant he wants to return to Syria, to return to his family home which mercifully remains intact despite the daily shelling. His mother, his three sisters and brothers are still there amid the fighting, waiting for him to come home.
“I hope just to walk,” he says, when asked what he wants to be when he grows up. “Then I will think what to do in the future.”
The majority of patients coming through the rehabilitation clinic are suffering injuries from shelling, mortars and gunshots.
Upstairs in the bright, newly constructed rooms of the clinic, young men fighting with the opposition lie on colourful purple and green bedsheets, their smiles and generous welcomes unable to distract from the bandaged stumps where legs and arms should be.
Cage-like devices enclose their limbs, holding their bones together.
The scene is one replicated in hospitals, clinics and makeshift rehabilitation centres across Syria’s neighbouring countries, where over 1.5 million refugees have fled the conflict, with Turkey host to over 400,000 alone.
The UK-based organisation Save The Children has reported that 52 per cent of these refugees are children, victims of a conflict that has inflicted its violence indiscriminately on even the most vulnerable.
A fighter with the Free Syrian Army, Yasser Said (23) was caught in the blast of a mortar during a clash with government forces in Aleppo, a city in northern Syria which has been the centre of fierce fighting.
His right leg had to be completely amputated and his left leg is severely damaged, his shin bone shattered in the explosion.
“I joined the rebels to protect civilians,” explains Said, who before the conflict studied literature at university.
His parents, seven brothers and four sisters are still in Aleppo and he says if he could, he would return to fight again, to keep them safe.
“Maybe you wonder why I am smiling even though my leg is gone? I am proud of what I do and if I was able to go back to the battle I would.”
Turkey has become a military and logistical base for the Syrian rebels, and border towns such as Reyhanli are busy hubs for the transporting of weapons and humanitarian aid into the areas “liberated” by the opposition.
Earlier in the week, large groups of incensed demonstrators took to the streets of the city in the aftermath of the twin car bomb attacks which killed over 50 last Saturday, blaming the government’s policy with Syria. A backlash against the refugee population caused hundreds of Syrians to cross the border back into their country, knowing they were risking their lives but fearing equally the hostility in the town.
Dr Hamide, who works with the clinic, says policemen kept a vigil outside to ensure the safety of the patients and stressed that the tightened security at the border was making it difficult for patients travelling from Syria for medical care, and also for those returning.
He explained the clinic is not permitted to perform surgeries and the Syrian refugees requiring operations often travel to the Syrian town of Atmeh where there is a community hospital and maternity clinic run by Syrian relief agencies.
As the day ended, the doctor was finalising preparations to travel with a pregnant Syrian woman across the border the next day, making the decision to return to a conflict to give birth.