MSF team members load trucks with necessities for distribution to earthquake victims. February 11, 2023. © Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

Syria: “Hospitals were full of wounded and dead”


According to the latest estimates by authorities, the earthquakes that hit Syria and Türkiye have killed more than 35,000 people. In northwest Syria, a largely landlocked region, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams already in the area enacted an emergency plan as of Feb. 6. The objective: to support hospitals and provide medical and material assistance to people affected by the disaster, by mobilizing a large part of the 500 members of our staff already active in the country.

The MSF hospital in Atmeh, which usually specializes in caring for severe burns, has thus made numerous donations of medical and non-medical equipment and sent its surgeons as reinforcements to several hospitals in the region. Additionnaly, numerous donations has been made from MSF local projects to 30 hospitals in the region.

“On Feb. 6, we quickly understood that we were facing a catastrophic situation,” says Mohammad Darwish, deputy director of MSF Atmeh hospital. “The destruction was massive in the area, we launched our emergency plan less than three hours after the first earthquake and put our staff on alert.”

MSF teams from Atmeh have started to send medical equipment to around 10 hospitals in the region, to Bab al-Hawa, Darat Izza, Idlib, and even to Atarib.

“All the hospitals were overwhelmed, including ours,” says Samih Kaddour, director of the Aqrabat hospital, specializing in orthopedic and reconstructive surgery. “The MSF teams were the first to help us and to share their resources. They gave us materials, including making casts and sterilizing wounds. We received 800 people in the emergency room, 250 of whom needed surgical treatment. Even today [Feb. 11], the wounded continue to flow in.” 

MSF team members load trucks with necessities for distribution to earthquake victims. Syria, 2023.
MSF team members load trucks with necessities for distribution to earthquake victims. Syria, 2023.© Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

MSF surgeons from Atmeh were also sent to certain health facilities in the region to help their colleagues who were dealing with a large number of injured.

“I went to a hospital located in the immediate vicinity of Türkiye,” says Dr. Mohammad Zaitoun. “Due to the closure of the border, and the impossibility of receiving external support or transferring the wounded, this put immense pressure on us. There were many wounded, the medical staff was exhausted. We did our best together with the MSF teams in Atmeh. As a surgeon, I was in the operating room. We had never witnessed such an influx of wounded, except perhaps during the bombardments or massacres that took place in the region.”

Syrian doctors operate on a patient in a hospital in Atmeh.
Syrian doctors operate on a patient in a hospital in Atmeh. The equipment for the operating room of this hospital comes from a donation from the MSF team in Atmeh. Syria, 2023.© Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

Ambulances from the Atmeh hospital were also involved. They made it possible to transfer patients between hospitals. As for the MSF mobile clinics, their intervention plan was adapted to the situation and they were dispatched to places where survivors of the earthquake were flocking. The teams that make up these mobile clinics have been working on a regular basis for several years, providing healthcare to people living in the many camps in the region, which were already hosting people displaced by the ongoing war. They are currently visiting the places where people who have lost their homes are taking refuge on a daily basis, whether in Sarmada, Kammouneh or Al Dana.

“We still do not have a clear vision of the situation in the wider area of Atmeh,” says Mohammad Darwish, speaking last Saturday. “We just know that the hospitals are full of wounded and dead people and that the needs are immense. The people of the region need everything. We immediately opened our logistics warehouses and distributed hundreds of essential items, but it is not enough. [Some] 2,500 blankets have been donated to hospitals for their patients, and hundreds of kits of basic necessities have been distributed.”

In the immediate future, MSF teams in the region are drawing on our emergency stock, while waiting for an international supply, which has been hampered by the political tensions surrounding this landlocked region. Until the earthquakes, Bab al-Hawa was the only crossing point for humanitarian assistance from Türkiye to this landlocked region of northwestern Syria.

“Almost a week after the earthquakes, we have not received any help from outside,” says Moheed Kaddour, director of a hospital in Atmeh, and brother of Samih Kaddour. “Support only came from other hospitals, local communities or organizations already present before the disaster. In this, the MSF hospital in Atmeh played an important role. However, this responsiveness, built through regular support for a network of around 20 health structures, is now facing certain limits, such as the impossibility of transferring patients who are in serious condition to Turkey.”

Trucks chartered by MSF teams from Atmeh hospital, on their way to a distribution. Syria, 2023.© Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

“Usually we can transfer our most severely burned patients to appropriate health structures in Turkey,” says Mohammad Darwish. “The MSF hospital in Atmeh provides essential care, but also has its limitations and can only adequately care for people with moderate burns. Today, there are no more specialized hospital beds in the governorate of Idlib and one cannot cross the border.”

In northwest Syria, the earthquakes further disrupted a region that already has more than two million displaced people living in camps and where access to health care is lacking.

“Nine days after the earthquakes, we are still mobilized by the care of our patients,” says Moheeb Kaddour. “We are still performing lifesaving surgeries on crush syndrome victims. This pathology, which results from a prolonged compression of the muscles, can be fatal by causing saturation and renal failure. The situation is indescribable and for now, we are alone.”