Al Masri poses with Saad and the technician who made his leg outside the clinic. (All photos courtesy of the author)
Muhammad Hamidu was 15 years old when a bomb dropped through his roof near Idlib, a city in Northwestern Syria, 59 km west of Aleppo. His right leg was severed on impact. Thirty-six people died, and it took three hours for his friend Muhammed Albush to dig him out.
It took another few hours before the crushed left leg was amputated in a desperate bid to save his life. Fortunately, it worked. Muhammad is 18 now and today he is getting fitted for double prosthetics that will allow him to stand again, if only on crutches.
Muhammad is one of thousands of Syrian children who have been, literally, torn apart by the civil war that has raged in the country for three years. The city of Reyhanli, a Turkish town that lies on the border with Syria, has become one of the safe havens for what is being referred to as the lost generation of Syrians.
There are 100,000 Syrian refugees in Reyhanli alone, nearly twice the city’s Turkish population of 60,000. Everywhere you look here there is war etched into the town – from eight-year-olds in tattered rags selling bags of tissues out of their pockets to old women’s faces crumpling under the weight of worry lines. There is no doubt that living in the shadow of one of the most brutal humanitarian crises is not an easy burden to bear.
There are pockets of hope, however. On a new road at the edge of town, past a makeshift military hospital made of shipping containers and a garbage-strewn pavement, a grassroots prosthetics clinic is a hive of activity in the heat of a Saturday morning. Crammed with patients and technicians, there is a steady hum of Arabic, a gentle clicking of metal joints and even the occasional peel of laughter.
In one room, plaster dust chokes the air as molds are made. In another, plastic shavings litter the floor as whirring machines and handheld scissor blades smooth rough edges into bevelled corners. Finally, in the largest room, walkways with railings on either side creak a little as tentative first steps are taken on new limbs.
“There is an important need for this clinic because of the many patients who undergo amputations,” says Raed al Masri, the director for the National Syrian Project for Prosthetic Limbs.
Al Masri’s team of 12 students from Antakya University has made 800 new lower limbs since the clinic opened a year and a half ago.
As the violence in Syria exploded around him, al Masri – once a maths teacher in the now-decimated city of Homs – saw the sons and daughters of his friends and neighbours butchered either by sniper attacks or air strikes. He recognised that one of the first priorities of humanitarian aid would be to “make the patient more effective by giving them a limb back”. In Syria taking or losing a limb is all too common.
Vascular surgery to save a limb can cost $10,000 (£5,974), money that few of the refugees here have. Amputations, however, are free. A new leg from the NSPPL clinic costs $550 (£329). In North America, a similar prosthetic can cost in the thousands.
Despite the Turkish locale, al Masri is Syrian. His staff are Syrian. His patients are Syrian. They come from different parts of the country and speak with different accents, but they share one commonality: They arrived in Reyhanli after fleeing the deadly sniper attacks and the endless barrage of barrel bombs and rocket assaults that pummelled their homes to dust.
As one Syrian source described in a text message from inside Aleppo this week, “It is raining barrel bombs.”
The staff arrived (mostly) physically unharmed from throughout the conflict zone; the patients were not so lucky. Everybody bears the scars of war, from the 23-year-old former fighter whose left arm was paralysed by an exploding bullet, to the father and son who now have matching double amputations halfway up their thighs.
These are sad stories relative to the tragedies. The worst cases never made it to the prosthetic clinic. They were the babies cut in half by screaming hot shrapnel tearing though the air. They were the old men and women who were too weak to walk to safety and starved to death in the shelled-out streets, where UN food aid is
Today, though, is about marking small successes, and that is what we see every few minutes in this chaotic clinic.
The day before visiting the prosthetic clinic we toured some of the rehab centres in Reyhanli. It’s not immediately clear how many there are in town. As need grows and wanes based on the frequency and proximity of the attacks in Syria, clinics in Reyhanli are added or packed up and moved elsewhere. We visited a centre now taking over several floors of an old hotel, one in a basement flat and another in a rented out house.
It was in these clinics that we met the two Muhammads, now inseparable friends, and a group of other young Syrians, no older than 25, who represent the lost generation. Today they have come to the clinic for a day of fitting, training and adjusting to their new life with a prosthetic.
As patients wait for their turn to be measured or to take a walk on the practice stairway, the ones who have had their prosthetics longer coach the new users while the staff set up obstacle courses and demonstrate exercises.
Omar Saad seems to have taken to his new leg without missing a step. Where some of the other patients have concealed their limbs, he proudly displays his, rolling up the right leg of his jeans, standing with his arms crossed, studying the movements of the staff and then mimicking them almost perfectly.
Seven months ago Omar had his right leg shot to pieces by a .50 calibre bullet – a round that can penetrate concrete and 1-inch plate steel. He’s a handsome 19-year-old whose gait is now so strong and purposeful that it’s nearly impossible to tell he’s lived through hell.
Omar has been studying computer science, but he plans to return to the front lines of the war in just a few days.
“I will be a sniper,” he says.
It’s hard to understand what would compel a maimed teenager to put his life on the line after such a near miss. But Syrians aren’t stupid – they know the world is ignoring them and, if they don’t go back, no one else is coming to help.
“I will defend the families and the religion against Bashar al-Assad,” he says with conviction.
We ask al Masri whether it’s normal for his patients to return to the war. He says he doesn’t ask about politics, but that only just over half of his patients are men. The rest are women and children. There are enough badly-injured women that there is an all-female rehabilitation centre in Reyhanli as well.
We stopped by the women’s centre and met one of the young female casualties: Noor. She looks every bit the grown-up Syrian woman, but she is just 14. She has already outgrown her first prosthetic, and has returned to be fitted for a new one.
Noor has been off school for a year due to her injuries, but she dreams of returning and studying to be a doctor.
“I have two emotions: sad and angry at the Syrian regime," says al Masri. “These limbs don’t return. These [prosthetics] just help with life.”
With the war still in a deadlock, and the regime’s continuing campaign of indiscriminate mass bombings, more patients will undoubtedly find their way to al Masri. But thanks to him and his team, some modicum of normal life seems to be once again possible for the resilient young people lumbering awkwardly around this makeshift prosthetics clinic.
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