BEIRUT: One of the few remaining hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo will be forced to close its doors at the end of the month, after a major international NGO unexpectedly withdrew funding for the facility, leaving half a million people with access to only rudimentary field clinics.
Atareb Hospital sits at a strategic juncture on the road just south of Aleppo city, making it a vital hub for treating patients who have been wounded during the government’s devastating air assault on civilians in opposition-held areas. But after successive hospitals in the north have been shelled into disuse, Atareb has also become a lifeline for people with long-term illnesses. Cancer, kidney failure, diabetes and heart disease are all effectively untreatable in makeshift field hospitals that have sprung up in the absence of a fully functioning medical system.
“Atareb is one of the biggest hospitals in north Syria, serving a population of around 500,000. It treats everybody from pregnant women to cancer patients. Field hospitals can only really deal with emergencies. They can’t help with complex surgeries either ... It is a crime to allow Atareb to close,” said Dr. Atassi, a British physician who worked in the hospital, which sees over 26,000 patients a year and has north Syria’s only renal dialysis unit.
The Syrian American Medical Society estimates that 200,000 Syrians have died from treatable chronic conditions during the 3-year-old war, higher than those who have died as a direct result of violence.
“The health system is deteriorating very rapidly, not only from the bombardments and the war itself but also because of a lack of general health care. Viral infections, TB, polio, blood pressure – treatments for these kinds of conditions should be taken for granted,” Atassi told The Daily Star.
Atassi works for Hand in Hand for Syria, a British charity that established Atareb as a small community hospital. A year ago, the project rapidly expanded after a major European NGO agreed to fund it, at around $150,000 a month.
The decision of the NGO to pay for the running of Atareb, but not allow its name to be made public or its staff to operate inside Syria, highlights an increasing fear among Western charities that want to provide support in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, but feel it too dangerous to put their staff at risk and don’t want to incur the wrath of the authorities in Damascus. The government officially bans NGOs from entering the country through rebel-held crossings, meaning that large swathes of territory in the north go virtually without aid.
As recently as two weeks ago, Mercy Corps, one the biggest NGOs working in Syria, was forced to pull out of government areas after Damascus slammed its decision to work covertly in rebel neighborhoods.
A small British charity, but one run mostly by Syrian expatriates, Hand in Hand is not under the same pressures as major international organizations when having to respect the demands of Damascus, Atassi said.
“We have been working as a vehicle for them [the NGO] to deliver aid inside Syria without being named. It had worked well; we have the contacts on the ground to pay staff and keep the electricity and water running, and they provide the money.”
However, last month Hand in Hand suffered a major blow.
The NGO was withdrawing its funding for Atareb.
“We had an initial contract for a year, and the anticipation was that this contract would be renewable,” Atassi said. The NGO blamed “political and logistical” challenges of working inside rebel-held Syria.
“I don’t know if this [the pressures placed on NGOs by Damascus] played a part in their decision, but I know we did not get a good enough explanation of why they had to divert the funds. It is very difficult for us to understand why after all this investment in infrastructure and training they have let the project fail. We are very disappointed.”
However, Dominic Bowen, coordinator of the NGO Forum, a group which represents international groups making aid deliveries to north Syria, said charities faced huge challenges to work in rebel-held areas.
“The pressures that NGOs are facing are the same that women and children are facing, and that’s the continual breaching of international humanitarian law ... and the continual and indiscriminate targeting of civilians,” he said.
“The delivery of independent humanitarian assistance should never be politicized,” he added, noting that several actors are complicit in inhibiting aid distribution.
Without a last-minute intervention by another wealthy donor, Atareb will stop operating at the end of June. Atassi said that Hand in Hand has been desperately trying to secure new funding, but no organization appears willing to take the risk.
“At the moment, the best we can hope is that we can keep the hospital running for another month or two with private donations,” he said, of Hand in Hand’s frantic social media campaign to drum up funds.
“But no major charities are interested ... so we doubt that Atareb will survive. By the end of June, the electricity will have to turn off, it will run out of fuel and then people will lose the services altogether.”