Syria ceasefire brings respite to overworked medics

AFP , Monday 29 Feb 2016

Syria conflict
A women rests near rubble on the ground in the town of Darat Izza, province of Aleppo, Syria February 28, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)

In Syria's second city Aleppo, rescue workers have been taking advantage of the quiet to play football outside. For the first time in years, they have no one to save.

Their ambulance parked nearby, the volunteers known as White Helmets have been relishing the calm of the second day of a landmark truce across parts of the country.

Doctors and emergency workers in war-ravaged Syria typically work around the clock in fraught conditions to provide life-saving care to the wounded.

Since the conflict erupted in 2011, volunteers have been pulling civilians from the rubble after air strikes and treating victims of shelling and sniper fire practically non-stop.

So when a ceasefire came into effect across large parts of Syria early on Saturday, many breathed a sigh of relief.

"There were days we would get 50 calls in each of our 114 emergency call centres across Syria," says Abdelrahman, a spokesman for the White Helmets.

But after the so-called cessation of hostilities began, he says, the number of pleas for help plummeted: "We got ten calls the whole day from all of the centres put together."

Volunteers think they may even be able to take an extra day off this week, although many also fear "the calm before the storm".

On Twitter, the White Helmets posted a picture of a shut door with a sticker on it: "Closed because of the truce."

"We hope that our centres will be closed every day -- but we are still ready," Abdelrahman tells AFP.

Bomb-scarred Aleppo city has suffered some of the country's most intense clashes.

Since 2012, it has been divided by a bloody fault line, with the regime controlling the west and rebels the east.

Dr Hamza al-Khateeb, who runs a hospital in an opposition-held eastern neighbourhood, says he's happy finally to be seeing fewer war wounds.

"A relative calm has prevailed and we haven't received any people wounded from gunfire or shrapnel from shelling over the past two days," he tells AFP.

"But the number of patients with other ailments who are coming to our clinics has risen," Khateeb adds.

Patients with diabetes and similar illnesses who were too afraid to make the dangerous journey to the hospital under bombardment were now finally getting treatment, he says.

The hospital itself has also been hit by shellfire.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has strongly criticised Syria's warring sides for attacks on clinics and hospital staff.

In Damascus, one local doctor says the relative peace means that he and his team have even begun to think of taking a long-needed holiday.

"We're still at the ready in case there are any ceasefire violations," he tells AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But it's no secret that there's a feeling of mental relief among doctors, especially in the emergency room which has long been a stressful place," he adds.

Emergency workers at the weekend were back to covering "normal" injuries that they "had almost forgotten existed" -- car accidents, scrapes and bruises.

"Maybe there'll even be an opportunity for time off outside the halls of this clinic," the doctor says hopefully.

"Personally, I'm very optimistic. I hope we can go back to the routine we had before the war, without hearing the wail of ambulances around the clock."

West of the capital, in the rebel bastion of Daraya, relief that the bombs had stopped was tempered by the ongoing siege.

"After the ceasefire was announced, we were relieved at the hospital because there were no war-wounded," says Diaa al-Ahmar, a doctor at Daraya's only hospital.

Women and children emerged from basements and makeshift bomb shelters for check-ups and other treatment.

But the blockade of the town by pro-government forces means the already strained hospital is unable to care for them properly.

"People are still dying in the city because of the lack of equipment and medicine due to the siege," Ahmar says.

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