"I see my baby in pain and I can't do anything." In a rebel zone in Syria, Oum Khaled worries about her daughter, born with a heart defect, who risks dying if she continues to be deprived of medical care.
After the February 6 earthquake that devastated large areas of Syria and neighboring Turkey and killed more than 55,000 people, Ankara closed the main border crossing with rebel areas in Syria to patients.
Many patients living in these regions of the north-west of the country, where the medical infrastructures are dilapidated, used to take this Bab al-Hawa passage daily to go for treatment in Turkey, which for years supported the rebels in Syria.
A week before the earthquake, Oum Khaled, 27, gave birth in a camp for displaced people in the Idleb region to her daughter, Islam, who suffers from atrophy and a heart defect.
"Her condition is getting worse, she is losing weight," said the mother of four in a camp tent. "When she cries, she turns blue and her heart beats fast," she says, saying that Islam sometimes has great difficulty breathing.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 50% of health facilities are out of service in Syria, following years of war, which began in 2011 after pro-democracy protests were suppressed.
The situation is particularly worrying in the rebel regions, home to more than three million people, half of whom are displaced, and where hospitals lack equipment, personnel and medicines.
Fearing for Islam's life, a doctor recommended Oum Khaled to have her operated quickly.
But crossing points with Syrian government-held areas are closed to civilians, and Turkey, where the health sector has been overwhelmed by quake victims, is no longer an option.
Local authorities used to send most people with heart disease, cancer and those requiring complex surgeries to Turkey, via Bab el-Hawa, before it was closed to the sick.
The crossing remained open only for UN humanitarian aid, goods and Syrians from Turkey wishing to visit their loved ones in the enclave.
Firas al-Ali, 35, who suffered from a benign pituitary tumor, traveled regularly to Turkey, where he had surgery and received his medication.
He was supposed to go there on February 23, but the passage was then closed.
Firas sees blurry now and feels severe pain in the head. "My treatment, which I must never stop, is not available here, or else it is beyond my means," says the man with dark circles and a pale complexion.
Since the closure of Bab al-Hawa, the hospital run by the NGO Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and based in Idleb, the only one treating cancerous tumors in the region, has been overwhelmed.
“After the earthquake, patients came flooding in,” says pediatric oncologist Abd el-Razzaq Bakkour.
In the pediatric ward alone, the hospital received 30 of the 70 patients who usually received treatment in Turkey.
"Forty patients are therefore no longer receiving chemotherapy and (...) some are at risk of dying," laments Mr. Bakkour.
“Many of them should be admitted to Turkey as a matter of urgency,” adds the doctor, who specifies that his establishment notably lacks “devices used to make a diagnosis”.
On Monday, Turkey finally reopened the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, but only for people with cancer.
Youssef Hajj Youssef, suffering from lung cancer, was due to undergo chemotherapy in southern Turkey on the day of the earthquake, but the tragedy prevented him from doing so.
Since he interrupted his treatment, "the size of the tumor has increased by three centimeters", says the sexagenarian from the SAMS oncology center.
"After the earthquake, we people with cancer suffered a lot. We are all waiting to be able to return to Turkish hospitals."
06/09/2023 05:08:39 - Halzoun (Syria) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP