Syrian man getting emotional at a Turkish hospital
© Julien Faure/Square
Syrian man getting emotional at a Turkish hospital
Ombline Lucas
Last updated: April 10, 2013

Sectarian strife looms in Turkish hospitals

Verbal abuses, negligence, failures in diagnosis... When it comes to Syrian rebels, some Turkish doctors seem to be heavy-handed on medical treatments.

It’s a quiet and sunny day in Antakya, Hatay’s governorate capital. Some white clouds still linger, snagging on the mountain peak that rises over the city. Early in the morning, you can hear birds singing, only to be disrupted by the muezzin call for prayer. For a moment, you would not imagine that war lies only 40 km ahead of this city of 200,000 that boasts a diverse population of Sunnis, Alawis and Christians.

You don’t need to remind Bülent and Taha about the Syrian conflict. Both of them are interns at the Atatürk University Hospital. They still have one year left before they graduate, yet, the current crisis seem to have speeded things up. “We receive 5 to 6 wounded persons from Syria each day,” says Taha. “Yesterday, one guy came with his arm shredded by a bomb. We had to amputate.” As if the story was too big to tell, the young man shows the picture he took with his cellphone. Shredded, indeed.

Once an ally of Syrian president Bashar al Assad, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan has been a staunch critic of his “good friend” ever since Assad decided to use violence to silence the popular uprising. Syrian refugees are thus considered “guests” in all 17 government-controlled camps dispatched along the border. 230,000 are registered or awaiting registration with the UNHCR, but the authorities estimate that an additional 40.000 to 170.000 are living by their own in the country.

Now Turkey provides safe haven for the loose coalition of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at war against Damascus and medical treatment for the injured – both civilians and fighters. At the Bab al Hawa border crossing, 45 minutes away from Antakya, officials turn a blind eye on most serious cases and let the ambulances carry the wounded to the city’s public hospitals. Yet, their misfortune does not always end at the border.

Dr Hamza (not his real name) works as a volunteer for the Union of Syrian medical relief organizations (UOSSM) at the university hospital. Originally from Idlib in north Syria, he arrived six months ago to check his fellow countrymen upon their arrival in Antakya. Dr Hamza does not have a desk and barely has the right to access the hospital. Most of his Turkish colleagues disregard him.  

How can they not? “I have seen how some of them behave,” swears the doc. “I saw Turkish doctors amputating a Syrian fighter much higher than necessary on purpose. I saw another doctor pushing hard on the fracture of another patient until he screamed. Then he asked him to shut up because as a Syrian ‘he had no right to complain’. I also saw medical staff denying painkillers to Syrians because ‘they were Sunnis fighting against Bashar al Assad’.”

For the next 10 minutes, the medic lists the acts of ruthlessness he witnessed since his arrival.

It is no secret that Antakya’s numerous Alawi population has never been keen on seeing the FSA succeeding in overthrowing the Syrian regime. After all, Bashar al Assad is an Alawi himself, so are most of the high-ranking officials in Damascus. But more than the natural sympathy people may have for the Syrian president, Hatay’s Alawis fear Syrian rebels’ alleged Islamism. And what might happen to Syrian Alawis should they win the war.  

No Turkish doctor was available to answer our questions. As a matter of fact, staff didn’t want us to go further than the lobby. Dr Hamza suggests we contact his colleague for the second biggest public hospital in Antakya, the National Hospital. Appointment is set the next day in front of the facility, early in the morning. Then the UOSSM representative gives us a call, 10 minutes past the initial rendezvous. “Things have changed. I was told not to talk to you. You will have to be on your own. I’m sorry.”

As expected, the staff isn’t much more welcoming. ”Journalists are not allowed here,” warns one medic at the entrance. Fortunately, a Syrian patient waiting for his dialysis manages to get us through. Mazen goes straight to the second floor. “You want to talk with Syrians? Help yourself”. The lobby is packed with tens of people talking loudly in Arabic, waiting to see a medic. Some carry a broken hand luggage with them. Others came here with nothing but their clothes on. “It’s the same sh** everywhere,” mutters one of them. “Every time Syrians face an Alawi doctor, they don’t receive appropriate treatment. Things are different in private clinics, but I can’t afford them.”

Daphne clinic is one of the finest facilities in town. Back with Dr Hamza, we meet Mohammad, who had his arm amputated at the National hospital. Thanks to a generous sponsor, he switched to Daphne right after the surgery. The teenager was hit by a shell in Aleppo while going for groceries. “The problem is not the amputation itself,” explains Hamza. “Doctors did not clean his wound. I took out a piece of food from it myself. Worst was his thigh: no one cared to take off the piece of shrapnel he had in his flesh, although he had an X-ray scan.” Mohamad looks at us in disbelief, still carrying in his hand the size of a phalanx a piece of metal that struck him.       

Everywhere in Daphne, Syrians tell of a similar story. It starts with the sound of shelling in Aleppo or the Idlib countryside, then the pick-up truck lift to Antakya, ending with unexpected pain in one of the city’s public hospitals. Next to Mohammad’s room is Khaled, whose fate is similar. Except this young man, who admits being a fighter for the FSA, was not supposed to be amputated. Khaled had his foot hit by a shell but he was left for four days in the university hospital lobby without treatment. Gangrene quickly spread to the leg, and doctors in Daphne had no choice but to amputate when his family finally transferred him.

Rumors about Syrian refugees are quite common among the population in Antakya. Proponents of the status quo ante don’t miss a chance to tell the story of those bold Syrian families allegedly eating at one of the fanciest dining tables in town while leaving the bill to the Turkish government. Tales of rebel fighters being abused in public hospitals could be a great substitute for supporters of the Syrian revolution. Yet no storyteller has ever been able to mention the name of the indebted restaurant.  

Doctors without Borders (MSF) is not officially entitled to operate in Turkey so it makes it difficult for the French NGO to know what is going on in Antakya’s hospitals. “We only have limited information available, but we know there is a lot of distrust among Antakya’s population towards Syrians being treated in the city hospitals’”, discloses a senior officer.

“It’s like every medic in this city is an Alawi or a supporter of Bashar,” complains Mahmoud, Khaled’s brother. “Even the cleaning lady was against us at university hospital. She told me she hoped we would both die because we were extremist Sunnis.” How come the staff in Daphne is so nice to Syrian patients then? “Things are different here. We pay for the treatment. Doctors can’t be involved in politics,” believes the young man.

Ombline Lucas (a pen name) is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She worked for French daily Le Monde and also with L'Express, Le Soir, La Tribune de Genève, L'Orient-le-Jour, The Red Cross and Red Crescent Magazine.

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