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The hospital in a cave - MSF forced to work in secret locations in Syria

Retired surgeon and president of Médecins Sans Frontières UK, Prof Paul McMaster has been carrying out surgery in this cave, somewhere in Syria. Photo: Médecins Sans Frontières.As the conflict continues in Syria, hospitals have become a target making the work of medical charities more urgent than before, according to one agency working there.

Médecins Sans Frontières reported Monday (January 14) that hospitals in a town near the Turkish border are no longer usable, and the same is true of other towns in the country.

The head of mission for Syria told MSF Ireland: “Even after the airstrikes on medical facilities in the Aleppo region, local doctors and nurses remained committed to providing medical care and are doing their best to help the population.”

Speaking at an MSF event in Dublin shortly before Christmas, retired surgeon Prof Paul McMaster said bombing has wiped out two-thirds of Syrian hospitals.

Recently returned from Syria, he carried out surgery while working in a cave. Describing the cave as damp and chalky, he said the sound of nearby bombing could be quite clearly heard as he worked.

“I’ve never been under such consistent bombing. The helicopters fly and hover over the village, the Syrian call them butterflies. They carry drum barrels filled with metal and pieces of reinforced concrete – shrapnel bmbs.

“Then the barrels drop, the boom reverberates between the mountains, the valley and ground. Boom … the whole place shakes,” he said.

Prof McMaster said he removed large pieces of shrapnel from babies and children. While MSF treat fighters from both sides, he said the majority of their patients are civilians.

President of MSF UK, he has worked in Sri Lanka, Ivory Coast, Somalia and Haiti among others but said his experiences in Syria were deeply frightening.

“Everyone struggles with something, for me in Syria it was the children. Maybe it’s a function of my age but I found their injuries very difficult to accept. It is terrible, a dreadful situation,” he said.

Yesterday (MON 14th) MSF reported their hospitals continue to provide basic care including emergency, obstetric and primary health care in the north of Syria.

Answering questions from the floor, Prof McMaster said: “Syria scared me witless. The local staff, they are the heroes. These staff stay there, they could go elsewhere but they stay. They are there now, tonight.”

The MSF hospitals are clandestine, working without government permission in spite of repeatedly seeking permits, Prof McMaster said. This means an arduous mountain trek to get into the country, and makes getting medication “a nightmare”.

And when he said hospitals, he means the cave, a chicken farm and a basement in a bombed-out building where a small fire on the ground is used to boil water.

Speakers from the floor made poignant contributions with memories of pre-conflict Aleppo, speaking of the city’s beauty. Prof McMaster said he had lectured in Syrian universities before, describing the healthcare system as sophisticated.

Speaking before the event, Jane-Anne McKenna, head of MSF-Ireland said they would like to do more but are restrained by security considerations.

“The teams are crucial because we are one of the few organisations working outside of Damascus. The needs are so huge, trying to reach them is so important,” she said.

The medical charity also offers mental health treatment to refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Iraq, Turkey and Jordan as well as emergency medicine.

Donations for MSF’s work in Syria or elsewhere can be sent through the website: MSF Ireland.


WATCH: Video of Prof McMaster working in the cave in Syria

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