As Syria’s Raqqa battle nears end, road to rescue lengthens

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces fire their arms during a battle against Daesh group to retake the central hospital of Raqa on the western frontline of the city, in this September 28, 2017 photo. (AFP)
Updated 05 October 2017
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As Syria’s Raqqa battle nears end, road to rescue lengthens

RAQQA, Syria: “Don’t close your eyes. Stay awake!” the anti-jihadist Syrian fighter yelled at his injured comrade as a Humvee whisked them across the Daesh group’s former stronghold Raqqa.
With the battle drawing closer to the city center, the distance to the nearest medical facilities is lengthening, making its increasingly difficult to keep injured fighters and civilians alive.
The military vehicle carrying the wounded Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter whipped around a pile of rubble in Raqqa’s battered northeast as the man bled heavily from a gunshot wound in his ribs.
His lolling head was supported by his comrade throughout the bumpy 20-minute ride along destroyed streets to the nearest stabilization point, in the eastern Al-Meshleb district.
A team of medics there rushed to stop the bleeding, stitch the wound, and quickly pack the fighter into an ambulance headed north.
Ahead of him was a journey of at least two hours through desolate terrain to the nearest proper hospital, in the city of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey.
The fighter’s survival would depend on the initial treatment received during what medics call “the golden hour,” said Farhad Delli, a nurse with the Kurdish Red Crescent.
“Those wounded with a gunshot or blast wound from a mine are bleeding heavily. Medics should stop the bleeding before they arrive,” said Delli, who provides urgent care at a stabilization point in Hawi Al-Hawa, on Raqqa’s western edges.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed and many more wounded since the US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters of the SDF broke into Raqqa city in June.
The Kurdish Red Crescent has established various stabilization points around the city to respond, and treats between 80 to 100 people a day, Delli said.
Of those, around a dozen with severe injuries are transferred each day to hospitals further north for life-saving operations.

But the task of keeping people alive long enough for them to reach proper hospitals has become increasingly difficult.
In the early phases of the Raqqa battle in June, the journey from the front lines on the city edge to the Tal Abyad hospital took 90 minutes.
As battlefronts have drawn deep into the heart of Raqqa, and checkpoints along poorly maintained roads have multiplied, the trip has doubled in length, said Vanessa Craymond, medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which supports the Tal Abyad hospital.
“That long travel time means patients are often arriving in far from a good state. It takes us extra time to get them ready to go to theater (surgery) — if they make it to theater,” she said.
“If it was safer to have a hospital where surgery can happen closer to the front line, that’s a chance to treat those people and get a better chance of survival in those situations.”
There is also no cellphone service on the road out of Raqqa, so Red Crescent medics provide as much information as possible to their counterparts in the hospital before they set out.
“We write everything down on a card and send a picture of the patient to the Tal Abyad hospital to explain his condition,” said Delli.
“That way, when he arrives, they’re prepared to treat him.”
Craymond says those messages are vital.
“Every minute counts in trauma care,” she told AFP outside the Tal Abyad emergency room, where a nurse examined a young child with a bandaged foot.
“We’re able to exchange photos of the injuries to give some advice and prepare ourselves on this end so we know how many patients are coming, how we will respond, who’s going to (surgery) first,” Craymond said.

War wounded from Raqqa make up the majority of patients in the sparsely equipped Tal Abyad hospital.
Patients, relatives and doctors zigzagged across the chaotic waiting area outside the emergency room, as children’s cries echoed through the corridors.
Labels hand-written in red marker identified various beds in an urgent care ward, where four middle-aged men were being treated for blast wounds to their legs and arms.
In an air-conditioned room nearby, a young girl with severe burns to the face tossed and turned.
Just a few pockets of jihadist-held territory remain in Raqqa, but the hospital staff are bracing for a new influx of wounded because IS is believed to be holding civilians as human shields.
“The way the conflict is evolving at this point, there are more at-risk civilians,” Craymond said.
“We want to be ready to support the civilian response.”
For the SDF fighter with the rib wounds, the efforts were in vain. His comrades reported the following day that medics had been unable to save his life.


Thousands flee bombs and hunger in eastern Syria

Updated 12 December 2018
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Thousands flee bombs and hunger in eastern Syria

  • UN Spokesperson says at least 16,500 people have been forced to flee their homes
  • Almost 320 civilians have been killed, including 113 children

AL-HOL, Syria: Faraj was born in the pouring rain on a nondescript stretch of desert road in eastern Syria as his family fled escalating fighting over the Daesh group’s last bastion.
His family was part of a group of around 200 civilians who managed to escape from a pocket of territory in Deir Ezzor province that is still held by the jihadists.
“I had to resist hunger, cold and rain,” the newborn’s mother Kamela Fadel tells AFP in a camp for displaced people in the northeastern region of Al-Hol.
The young woman, her husband and their four children now sleep under white tents, with hundreds of other people who fled eastern flashpoints in past weeks.
They are huddled on straw mats laid out directly on the gravely earth, wrapped in blankets and hugging bags packed with their meagre belongings.
A nurse helps an elderly lady to the camp clinic as children play at scaling piles of foam mattresses and families sit cross-legged, eating from tin cans.
It is still cold in the vast tent but at least they are sheltered from the rain.
They walked for several days in the winter weather before being met last week by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling IS in Deir Ezzor.
“It was hunger that prompted us to leave, there was nothing left to eat,” says Kamela’s husband, still sporting the thick beard the jihadists impose on all adult men.
He and his family were living in Al-Shaafa, one of the last villages, together with Sousa and Hajjin, that are still under the control of IS.
The SDF, with the support of air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS, launched a major operation against the last rump of the jihadists’ moribund “caliphate” in September this year.
The jihadists hunkering down in their Euphrates Valley heartland have offered stiff resistance, thwarting coalition hopes of a quick victory.
Warplanes have been raining bombs on IS targets in and around Hajjin, causing significant civilian loss of life in the process, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory says almost 320 civilians have been killed, including 113 children.
“There is destruction everywhere because of the fighting and the bombardment. We were scared for the children,” says Faraj’s father.
Local camp official Mohamed Ibrahim told AFP around 1,700 civilians had arrived in Al-Hol in recent days.
The intensity of the bombardment and the remoteness of the area make it is difficult to estimate the number of civilians who remain, voluntarily or not, in the IS pocket.
“In Syria, displacement leads to food insecurity as people leave their belongings behind,” said Marwa Awad, a spokeswoman for the UN’s World Food Programme in Damascus.
“This is why it’s vital to maintain a lifeline of food assistance for vulnerable families such as those escaping violence in Deir Ezzor,” she said.
Awad said at least 16,500 people had been forced to flee their homes in Hajjin and surrounding areas since violence in the area intensified in July this year.
SDF fighters too suffered heavy losses in their assault on Hajjin, where a group of die-hard jihadists with little to lose are making a bloody last stand.
“There are land mines everywhere on the roads,” says Abu Omar, one of the displaced in Al-Hol.
Fearing retribution against relatives who have stayed behind in IS-controlled territory, he refused to give his full name.
“The village and our homes have been destroyed by the bombardment,” says Abu Omar, a man in his thirties.
“There are still high-ranking members of IS and foreigners there, but most are on the Hajjin frontline,” he says. “They won’t give up easily, they are fighting to the death.”
The US-led coalition puts the number of jihadist fighters holding out in that area at around 2,000.
“The day we managed to flee, the fog was thick and gave us cover. Had they seen us, they would have wiped us out,” says Ziba Al-Ahmed, who escaped the town of Sousa.
“The bombardment was so scary and our bellies were crying,” says the mother of four.
Their farming machinery was too precious to leave in Sousa and her husband stayed behind with one of their daughters.
“We’re worried about them, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”