Amidst waves of displacement to Idlib, hospital staff races to rebuild in aftermath of yet another airstrike

AMMAN: Civil Defense first responders and local medical personnel are scrambling to salvage what remains of the Maarat a-Numan National Hospital on Monday, one day after three alleged Russian airstrikes “directly hit” the facility, one of the largest medical centers in Syria’s rebel-held northwest.

The airstrikes injured up to 25 people and destroyed ambulances, operating rooms and vital medical equipment, indefinitely shutting down the area’s last remaining hospital. The attack is the latest in a week-long wave of regime and Russian strikes against medical infrastructure in opposition-controlled Hama and Idlib provinces.

One year after a similar attack on the same hospital killed three people, hospital staff are again racing to restore its operations, now with added pressure to accommodate thousands of internally displaced Syrians who have arrived in Idlib province following a series of recent rebel surrenders.

 Aftermath of Sunday’s airstrikes on the Maarat a-Numan National Hospital. Photo courtesy of SAMS.

The airstrikes caused “an unmistakable crisis for residents of the area,” Walid Mohammad, the former president of the Maarat a-Numan Local Council, told Syria Direct on Monday. “Both the sick and the injured must now travel all the way to the Turkish border (approximately 65km due north) in order to receive treatment.”

The first two airstrikes—reportedly vacuum missiles—struck the Maarat a-Numan National Hospital around 7pm local time. Just minutes later, as first responders rushed to the scene, the Idlib Civil Defense said a third missile slammed into the building. That second attack, whereby warplanes circle back minutes after an initial strike, is characteristic of a regime or Russian "double tap" intended to maximize casualties.

Video footage from the hospital, which is supported by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), shows rubble-strewn hallways with downed rafters, damaged operating rooms and a neonatal clinic along with gaping holes in sections of the building.

The hospital’s administration says it will rebuild the facility.

“It’s possible for us to rebuild the hospital, and we recognize the urgency of doing so,” Ibarahim Aboud, the hospital’s spokesman, told Syria Direct on Monday. “But until then, it’s out of service…and we’ll be moving most patients to the Bab al-Hawa hospital [on the Turkish border], and others to nearby medical points.”

 Idlib Civil Defense responds to bombing of Maarat a-Numan National Hospital on Sunday evening. Photo courtesy of Mutia Jalal.

Neither Russian nor Syrian state media has commented on the airstrikes.  

Prior to the attack, the hospital—roughly 30km south of the provincial capital of Idlib city—served the nearly 200,000 residents of Maarat a-Numan, including around 14,000 displaced Syrians newly arrived to the area. However, after a series of recent airstrikes knocked nearby medical facilities out of service, such as the Kafr Zeita hospital, that figure swelled to as high as 600,000 people. Residents must now either travel long distances to receive proper medical care or make due with understaffed and ill-equipped field hospitals.

Abu Omar, the pseudonym of an evacuee from Wadi Barada, received two surgeries on his leg at the Maarat a-Numan National Hospital prior to Sunday’s airstrikes. The hospital, he told Syria Direct from a hospital bed in a different facility, “gave me—and so many displaced people—the medical services we need and won’t soon forget.”

Bombings have intensified in opposition-held northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces in recent days as regime forces and their allies fight back an offensive launched by rebels in the area last month.

Pro-regime warplanes continued to bomb the Idlib countryside on Tuesday with early reporting from pro-opposition media outlets citing at least two casualties in Khan Sheikhoun as well as eight airstrikes in the western city of Jisr a-Shughour.

In at least two previous instances—in October 2013 and November 2012—regime forces bombed the Maarat a-Numan National Hospital, Physicians for Human Rights reported.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Yasmine Ali

Originally from Latakia, Yasmine moved to Jordan in 2012 where she completed her education in English Literature. She has worked with Syrian refugees in Jordan. Her goal is to report on the challenges facing Syrian children and youth.

Abdulmoen al-Hassan

Abdulmoen studied Social Work at the German Jordanian University in Madaba, Jordan through a DAAD scholarship. Abdulmoen wishes to learn how to cover humanitarian stories about Syria.

Eyad mohammed Madhar

Eyad is from Outer Damascus and graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Damascus University. He worked as teacher in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2012. Eyad was also active in the theater community in Syria.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.