In the room are two boys: one from Iraq, the other from Syria. The Iraqi boy’s body was peppered with shrapnel when a car bomb detonated near the market where he was shopping with his brother. His brother died. The Syrian boy’s face bore the markings of burns – a fire that was sparked by a shell landing on the house next door spread to his family’s, and he was there. Now they are both receiving treatment in Amman, the Jordanian capital, at this Médecins sans Frontières hospital, where the walls are covered with children’s drawings. “The children whose faces have been disfigured draw monsters,” said Talha al-Ali, a paediatric counsellor.
The Mowasah Reconstructive Surgery hospital is no ordinary hospital, for within its walls are housed war-wounded from around the Middle East, generations united by the joint trauma of witnessing and barely surviving an upheaval that has redrawn borders and destroyed the foundations of nation states.
Initially set up in 2006 as a reconstructive surgery hospital to treat Iraqis maimed during the US occupation of the country and the ensuing insurgency, it now provides a temporary home to those whose lives have been upended by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, the occupied Palestinian territories and even, for a time, Libya. It is a microcosm of the region’s maladies and the trauma they have wrought on civilian lives – there are people here who have been wounded in sectarian bloodletting, shelling, airstrikes, occupation and crackdowns by dictators.
“From one day to the other, these people’s lives have been completely changed or destroyed, and we’re trying to offer them a second chance,” said Jean-Paul Tohme, who runs the day-to-day operations of the MSF hospital, at its new building opened in February. The facility provides reconstructive surgery to the wounded, whether orthopaedic or plastic surgery, saying the practice is neglected in the region’s hard-hit nations, which lack the capacity for long-term care beyond handling emergencies.
“We are concerned about the long-term consequences of the war here,” said Marc Schakal, the head of mission for MSF in Jordan and Iraq. “These are long-term wars. In Iraq it’s been more than 10 years, in Syria it will be five years soon and we don’t see an end to this conflict. In Palestine, it’s been 60 years.” Doctors at the hospital now do some 1,300 surgeries a year, and this year admitted 600 new patients, conducting more complicated procedures like flap surgeries, where tissues are grafted from one part of the body to another, complete with blood vessels.
It has also had unexpected advantages – a big part of the doctors’ work is battling infections, a process that has provided MSF with insights into antibiotic resistance. Over-the-counter antibiotic medication is widely available in the Middle East, and patients often self-administer the drugs without completing the courses, giving rise to widespread resistance among bacteria. “The antibiotic we use here as a standard is the last line in Europe because we face so much resistance here,” said Schakal.
The Guardian interviewed four patients at the MSF hospital from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Gaza. Their opinions do not reflect the official views of MSF. [This testimony by Wael Samir is typical. A.]
Wael Samir – Yemen Scarcely an inch on Wael Samir’s face is free of burns: 70% of his body was scorched one night in 2011 when he and his friends were sleeping in makeshift tents in Change Square in Taiz, part of an uprising against three decades of rule by the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. At 2am, said Samir, they awoke to the sound of shelling and fighting in the camp, only to walk into raging fires after government troops set the tents ablaze. “A lot of people died,” he said. “It was only a few of my friends who lived.” Walking straight to a nearby mosque, a doctor took him to hospital. Samir spent two years at a medical centre in Sana’a, the capital, before moving to the MSF facility, where he has now spent a year and a half and gone through some 20 operations. Still, he smiles. He would like to return to Yemen, marry and reopen the family shop in Taiz.
“I am saddened by what is happening – the wars, the bombings, the destruction,” said Samir. “We saw Tunisia and Egypt, and the losses were minimal. Syria and Yemen have been utterly destroyed. But I do not regret going out because what we demanded was right. It was so that my younger brothers can have a good life afterwards.”