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'Situation is desperate' at makeshift hospitals on Syrian-Turkish border

Everyday more wounded Syrian rebels are brought in to Turkey and treated in border hospitals run by Syrian doctors and volunteers. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports. 

ANTAKYA, Turkey – It’s mid-afternoon, and in the basement of a non-descript residential building in a small town on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, volunteers are busy packing parcels of medicines and first-aid backpacks. The shipments today – as they have been every day – are destined for field hospitals on the battlefields inside Syria.

In this small makeshift warehouse, dimly lit air-conditioned rooms keep medicines cool. IV drips, resuscitator kits, bandages, gauzes, suture kits, pain medications and sterile operating kits are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. Every bag is stuffed. Not an inch is spared.

Workers here know every item taken inside Syria can save a life, or at least, help ease the pain of someone suffering.

The warehouse in Turkey is just one point in a vast global network aimed at helping the people of Syria caught in the crossfires of the ongoing conflict there. It is made up of doctors and nurses from America, working for an organization registered in France, buying medicine in Turkey, with funds from Arab countries and elsewhere in the world.

On the ground, the network is run by doctors, nurses and activists who help acquire the medicines locally and ferry them across the rugged border to the Syrian frontlines where people need them the most. Wealthy individuals, families and communities from around the region and the world have combined forces to help pay for the supplies.

While politicians and diplomats wrestle, argue, fight and disagree about what to do to end the violence in Syria, this is what ordinary men and women from around the world are doing to try and save lives.


Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

People and members of the Free Syrian Army carry an injured woman on a stretcher at an unofficial border crossing with Turkey in the northern Syrian province of Idlib on Monday.

Taking a toll on Turkey
If the frontlines of the war are deep in Syrian soil, the rear lines extend deep into neighboring Turkey. 

For a country that has in recent times enjoyed an economic boom, coupled with new diplomatic clout in the region, Syria’s conflict is taking a toll on Turkey and some of Syria’s problems are spilling over into border towns and cities here.

Makeshift care centers dot the Turkish-Syrian border. In town after town, private houses or in some case whole buildings are being converted to patient centers where the wounded and injured from Syria are brought for care, help and sometimes shelter.

The Turkish government says they have taken in over 46,000 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict. Many of them are housed in refugee camps along the border.

But many of the wounded and injured are brought to Turkish hospitals where they are treated and discharged. Once discharged, few have the proper resources to secure shelters or even the proper post-operative care. As a result, many are in desperate need of follow-up care.

Care houses run by Syrian doctors have sprung up to take in patients in desperate need of help. Many were amputees who lost limbs in battle, or were injured by the fighting – only to lose their limbs while being transported. They say their limbs could have been saved had proper medical care been readily available inside Syria. Instead, due to the long journey from Syrian cities – even though they are just dozens of miles across the Turkish border – many began to suffer infections that were incurable once they arrived on Turkish soil.

Over time, the houses have quickly filled up and the centers have become increasingly vital in providing critical care for some of the patients. Today, along this one stretch of the Turkey-Syria border, there are about half a dozen care centers housing between a dozen to 100 patients in each one, volunteer doctors say.

The average cost to run one of these centers is approximately $60,000 per month. Doctors are renting private residences in some cases and equipping them with basic supplies and equipment. They are not meant to operate as hospitals, but they are clearly serving life-saving functions at times.

'They need everything'
Many of those at the center we visited refused to give their names or even agree to be filmed for our video story. Patients regularly complained that although the care centers were providing important medical assistance, they were too ill-equipped, under-funded and poorly staffed to care for a steady stream of patients.

One patient from Aleppo with severe shrapnel wounds to his leg, agreed to speak with us but refused to give his name. He complained the facility was inadequately staffed.

Stringer / Reuters

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

"The Syrian National Council and the opposition groups are collecting millions of dollars from around the world for the revolution and they are just taking the money. Come look at the people here and see how we are being treated and you will see there is no money coming here,” he said.

Volunteers vehemently deny such charges. Instead, they say all of their funds are from private donations from individuals.  

Mark Cameron, a Canadian volunteer medical worker who was visiting one of the centers for the first time with the aim of returning to the West to solicit more funds, was shocked at what he saw.

"They need everything. The situation is desperate. I've been in some troubled spots all over the world, most recently, Cambodia, and as serious as it is there, this need here is immediate. It's today, it's this second,” said Cameron. “They don’t have antibiotics. They did some surgeries here yesterday that blew my mind without pain control because they just don't have it. It simply doesn't exist and the surgeries have to occur."

Cameron stressed that the doctors’ mission is apolitical. 

“This has nothing to do with religion, nothing to do with politics. This is a medical problem at the moment. We're medical professionals and were here to treat the medical problem.”

The volunteer doctors are mostly Syrians who are either living abroad or who escaped the fighting in their country. They are not allowed to practice medicine in Turkey because the care centers fall outside of the official Turkish health care system. But the facilities can help patients with post-operative care or serve as nursing homes for those with no places to go.

Supplies sneak across the border
Back at the warehouse, the medical supplies have been loaded on to a van. The van makes its way to the border under the watchful eye of the Turkish military, which sees the drop off in plain sight.

The military has turned a blind eye to much of the smuggling of medicines taking place along its border. It’s a sensitive issue for the Turkish government, which doesn’t want the border area to become lawless but is increasingly becoming porous for supplies, fighters and even weapons.

In broad daylight, we accompanied the volunteers as they coordinated with their counterparts on the Syrian side of the meeting point.  Along a stretch of the border that is marked by layers of barbed wire, a few cars have already pulled up. Our van approaches, and within minutes the bags and boxes are dropped off, pushed across an opening in the razor wire and loaded in the back of smaller beaten down cars heading to different cities across the battlefield.

The entire drop-off lasted less than 10 minutes. Then it was back to the warehouse for the volunteers in Turkey and off to the frontlines for the activists in Syria. Both sides are in a race against time and acutely aware that with each successful mission like this one, there is another chance to save a life in a conflict that has already taken so many.