Photo Essay: Inside besieged East Ghouta’s last cancer center

At the last operational cancer treatment facility in the besieged, rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus, oncologist Dr. Wissam a-Roz treats 665 patients with almost no medicine.

The Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center was established in Douma in 2013, the same year that Syrian government forces began their siege of East Ghouta. Doctors at the center provide free cancer treatment to residents.

A-Roz, the director of the center, once sourced chemotherapy and cancer-fighting drugs from smugglers who brought them into East Ghouta via underground tunnels.

But this past February, a Syrian government offensive shut down the smuggling tunnels, cutting off Dar a-Rahma’s only way to restock its inventory.

Now, ten months later, Syrian government forces rain airstrikes and artillery fire down on East Ghouta almost daily. Food, medicine and fuel for warmth are in desperate short supply. On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned humanitarian conditions in East Ghouta were at a “critical point.”

[Read Syria Direct’s interview with ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky here.]

By a-Roz’s estimate, the chemotherapy and other drugs available today in Dar a-Rahma “are only enough to cover three percent of our patients’ needs,” she tells Syria Direct this week.

Without the medicine, a-Roz says, her cancer patients cannot receive life-saving treatment. They face “certain death.”

At least 33 of her patients have already died this year, she tells Syria Direct, “as a result of the siege.”

“It’s the worst feeling as a doctor—to stand helpless in front of your patients, knowing the extent of their pain and suffering.”

Here, Ammar Doumani, director of Dar a-Rahma’s media center, photographs Dr. a-Roz and the operations of the treatment facility.

Dr. Wissam a-Roz prepares medicine at the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center in Douma on December 17.

The biggest challenge we’re facing right now is medicine,” says a-Roz, not pictured here. “It’s at the point where the shortage of chemotherapy medication is making us helpless, unable to treat our patients.”

 With almost no chemotherapy medication left, the doctors and nurses at Dar a-Rahma are now treating cancer patients with pain medications, or simply providing palliative care.

Fahd al-Kurdi, pictured above, is a lung cancer patient at Dar a-Rahma. He is one of 665 cancer patients currently undergoing treatment there.

Patients who whose conditions were improving before the medical shortage are today in grave danger, says a-Roz, not pictured above. She says 40 of her patients have “relapsed” as a result of the center’s lack of medicine. “They face death if present conditions continue.”

Only one bottle of Zoldria, a medicine used to help treat bone cancer, remains in Dar a-Rahma, says a-Roz.

One recent patient in the center was Batoul, a 10-year-old girl diagnosed with lymphoma after Syrian government forces cut off the tunnel trade into Ghouta earlier this year. With no medicine coming in from the tunnels, “we couldn’t treat her,” says a-Roz. “She died because of the siege.”

“Medicine is the solution” to Dar a-Rahma’s unfolding tragedy, a-Roz tells Syria Direct. “But securing it in Ghouta is difficult,” she adds, with no end to the siege in sight.

All photos courtesy of Ammar Doumani.

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013.