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Secret Hospitals and Corrupt Restaurants: Inside the City Awaiting Syrians Escaping War

VICE News witnessed chaotic scenes in the Turkish city of Kilis, which has become the first port of call for tens of thousands of fleeing Syrians and injured rebel fighters.

by Veronika Silchenko and Charles Parkinson
Mar 17 2016, 12:05pm

Un hombre herido se prepara para ser transportado de Kilos a Gaziantep. (Peter Shelamovskiy/VICE News)

The Turkish city of Kilis has seen its population explode from 90,000 to at least 210,000 people over the past four years, as Syrians fleeing the civil war in their homeland have streamed across the border 6 miles away. But thousands more Syrians remain trapped in makeshift camps at the frontier, with Turkey today only allowing ambulances and limited numbers of people through the crossing.

Last month, VICE News traveled to Kilis to visit the people living in the camps, whose numbers have swelled since Russian airstrikes began in September. While the visit was scheduled amid rumors Turkey would open its border to allow thousands more refugees into the country, those plans were interrupted by news on February 15 that two hospitals and a school in the nearby Syrian city of Azaz had become the latest civilian facilities to be devastated by airstrikes.

That same day, 60 miles away, two more hospitals were hit in the city of Idlib, including one run by international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — making it the second MSF facility to come under attack in Syria in less than a fortnight. While it was difficult to verify who was responsible for the assaults, a Turkish security official said Azaz had been struck by Russian missiles.

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In the wake of the strikes, VICE News witnessed the chaos at the border, as Turkish ambulances waited to transport scores of arriving Syrian wounded to hospitals. Journalists in Kilis said hospital guards who would usually keep them out of the building were too busy carrying the injured to prevent reporters witnessing the turmoil inside. With the main hospital unprepared for the carnage and quickly overcrowded, the most gravely injured were moved to the nearest big city of Gaziantep, 26 miles away.

Ambulances are one of the few things regularly allowed through the border crossing at Kilis (Photo by Petr Shelomovskiy/VICE News)

The flow of victims continued for two days, with many who had sustained injuries not deemed life-threatening forced to wait until February 17 to be treated. It was late that night when VICE News met Osman in front of the hospital in Kilis. He was showing his brother Mohammed pictures he had captured on his mobile phone during and after the airstrike. As he smoked nervously, Osman swiped through picture after picture of the dead. Each one was a member of his extended family.

"We went to this school because we were too scared to stay at home. Since the Russians have started bombing they don't care what they hit, but we thought no one would bomb a school. Who on earth can bomb a school?" he said.

Osman was outside the school when the bombs began falling on it. When it was finally safe to go inside, he found only five children had survived among 16 of his family members. In the confusion which followed, he lost track of one of them, a young girl, who he believes is still stuck in Syria. The four children that Osman did manage to get to the hospital all required surgery for serious injuries.

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One of the children is 4-year-old Maher, whose mother Raqhad was given permission to come to Turkey to take care of her son. Overcrowding meant the youngster was unable to remain in the hospital during his recovery, though he will return later for check-ups. Raqhad said the pair would probably stay in the home of Mohammed, who has lived in Kilis for 18 months after fleeing the bloodshed across the border.

Mohammed invited VICE News to the house which he says he has shared with more than 20 other relatives since arriving. Beaming with pride, he shows off photographs of his family members. But it is no ordinary family album: the photographs are attached to the refugee cards given to his relatives after they fled Syria for Turkey.

Mohammed and Osman sit in the house Mohammed has called home for the past 18 months (Photo by Petr Shelomovskiy/VICE News)

Mohammed says he was a farmer in Syria before the war, and he misses the smell of the soil in his homeland. Life in Turkey is very expensive for his family. He currently does a variety of odd jobs — anything he can get to earn some money — and more than half of his earnings go on rent. He says Osman is a qualified and talented architect, but now works in construction to make ends meet.

On the way back to the hospital, Mohammed stops at a restaurant near his house which gives free food out to those who need it. Only women are allowed to collect the food, and Mohammed's wife would usually come, but she is stuck at the hospital caring for the children from their family whose parents have not yet been granted permission to enter from Syria. A queue of women extends the length of the street from the restaurant door. The women are reluctant to talk at first and hide their faces from us, but once the first starts chatting others quickly join in.

"[In Kilis] it's better, because it's safe for my kids," says Mariam, who works in the restaurant's kitchen. She says she works long shifts but is just happy to have a job.

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Yet many others are struggling to get by because of the high prices of basic goods — which the women say are inflated by corruption, as vendors pocket some of the funding provided by international organizations to feed the Syrians who have escaped the war in their homeland. "[The sellers] are stealing all our money," says Nadra, "This food they are giving us cost a fraction of the money they receive from the organizations that are trying to help us."

A man from the restaurant confronts Nadra as soon as the camera is switched off, threatening to withdraw her free food if she continues to complain to journalists. She starts screaming at him, demanding to be treated with simple human respect. Her words are met with applause from the other women in the queue.

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Back at the hospital, Arab-speaking translators are on hand to assist the Syrians pouring in. They have been provided by an NGO which prefers not to be named because it also offers care at a private unlicensed hospital to those who are unable to access other services. The director of the unlicensed hospital told VICE News that it was only by remaining anonymous that the facility had managed to stay running for the past two years.

The hospital is located in a non-descript office building and would go unnoticed were it not for the wheelchairs visible through the open door. Inside the main entrance, a logo of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group is on view, along with pairs of army boots lined along the walls.

A patient from Homs who has been recovering at the unlicensed hospital for the past 5 months (Photo by Petr Shelomovskiy/VICE News)

All the patients are male, the vast majority ex-FSA soldiers. The day VICE News visited, there were 30 people inside. Seriously injured soldiers lay in rows of beds that made the rooms resemble barracks. The majority were nursing shrapnel wounds and the hospital director said many would never walk again. He said the number of people arriving with missing limbs had spiked since Russian airstrikes began.

Abu Bashir is the newest arrival, having come from Aleppo 25 days ago. A piece of his leg is missing and he doesn't know how long his recovery will take. The day he was injured he had been delivering bread to those who couldn't get out to the local bakery. Abu said he was injured when an airstrike struck the bakery as a queue of people snaked out of the door.

He said since the Russians became involved, a new sense of uncertainty had been cast over anyone stuck in the war arena. He said the Russians flew much higher and the only warning an airstrike was coming was often when the first bomb landed. "You never see them, you only hear the sound when it's already too late," he told VICE News.

A wounded fighters awaits his paperwork outside Kilis ambulance station (Photo by Petr Shelomovskiy/VICE News)

As Abu spoke, the fighters who were previously unwilling to talk to journalists began crowding around, interrupting each other in their eagerness to add to the discussion. According to Mohammed, a 20-year-old man who was the first to admit fighting for the FSA in Aleppo, the Russian entry into the conflict has seen a marked increase in airstrikes targeting civilians. "Do you know that they never bomb soldiers, they never actually target military bases. Never," he said. "I don't remember a single attack on our bases."

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