Syria’s war disabled struggling for prostheses

Sunday 07/08/2016
A wounded Syrian man exercises with his new prosthetic limb in Reyhanli, a border town in southern Turkey.

Damascus - Adnan has been watch­ing other children play­ing and running but has not been able to join in for almost three years. He was 8 years old when a shell smashed into his home in the vil­lage of Drosha, south of Damascus, tearing off his right leg and making him one among thousands who have lost a limb in the Syrian civil war.
Since then, Adnan’s mother has been contacting charities and hu­manitarian organisations to pro­cure a prosthesis for her son.
“I sought the help of the Syrian Red Crescent and several charity groups but all I’ve got is promises. We have been displaced for the past three years and I don’t have the money to buy an artificial limb for my son. It breaks my heart to see him watching other kids play,” Oum Adnan said, while queuing outside the office of an aid agency assisting war victims.
Estimates are that more than 300,000 people have been killed fighting since the Syrian war began in 2011.
“War data indicate that in paral­lel to every dead person there are four wounded, which means that the number of wounded exceeds 1 million, among whom one-quarter have suffered the loss of a limb,” said Maher Abdel Rahman, director of a prostheses centre in Damascus.
“Some estimate the number of war disabled is 300,000, including in areas under regime control, the opposition and the Islamic State. However, the real number won’t be known until the end of the war and I believe it will be terrifying.”
He noted that the majority of vic­tims are civilians, mostly women, children and elderly, who were injured in mortar shelling and air strikes in areas such as the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Idlib.
Will Steps is among several work­shops supported by humanitar­ian agencies in northern Syria and Turkey that manufacture artificial limbs and provide them for free to war disabled.
“We have the capacity of produc­ing 80 prostheses per month but the average production has been between 15 and 20 pieces due to in­sufficient funding. We tend to man­ufacture smaller pieces in order to assist a bigger number of people but demand is overwhelming,” said Hamza Diab, director of the work­shop in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep.
“We have a list of 3,600 appli­cants but the number is constantly rising as a result of ongoing battles in Aleppo and Idlib,” Diab said.
In the northern Syrian town of Aazaz, three former nurses have set up Happy Steps. “The large number of amputated people prompted us to establish the centre two-and-a-half years ago. We have since pro­vided more than 700 upper and lower artificial limbs produced lo­cally,” said co-founder Mohamad Najjar.
“We have the expertise but we need support in procuring the im­ported raw material for the fabri­cation of prostheses, the cost of which has multiplied more than ten times in the past few years.”
In the Damascus suburban region of Ghouta Sharqiyah, which has been under government siege for four years, technicians have resort­ed to the “good old ways” to assist the physically disabled.
“Hundreds of people had to [have limbs] amputated, especially those with grave leg injuries, because of shortages in medical aid. As de­mand for prostheses exceeded the capacity of our centre, some car­penters started producing wooden limbs, notably legs,” said Ahmad Hassan, a technician in Douma’s Farah Centre for artificial limbs.
Hassan warned, however, that wooden prostheses are not suitable for long-term use and could be a health hazard because the weight and rigidity could cause back prob­lems.
Hamish government hospital, which is affiliated to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, has been ex­clusively assisting victims of the armed forces who have lost limbs in combat. It fitted 500 personnel with prostheses between January and July and 1,000 others in 2015.
“It is a small number compared to the needs and the reason for not producing more is the economic sanctions imposed on Syria, which prevent us from importing the raw material that we need,” hospital director Ahmad Othman noted in a statement.
Another 435 army personnel were fitted with artificial limbs un­der a project called “supporting the wounded”, which began in 2015 under the sponsorship of Syrian first lady Asma Assad.
In Idlib, the Syrian National Pro­ject centre is offering prostheses and physiotherapy to victims in the opposition-held province but bor­der restrictions imposed by Turkey since the beginning of the year have slowed the channelling of needed materials. “Some volunteers are smuggling raw material but this is not enough,” said Saadeddine Youssef, the chief physiotherapist at the centre.
“We have offered more than 4,800 artificial limbs but the num­ber would have been double than that, if it wasn’t for the border con­straints.”