As Jordan’s Reconstructive Surgery Hospital marks ten years of saving the minds and bodies of the region’s war victims, those who have been granted a new lease of life tell their stories to the world through a photo exhibition which will showcase in Dubai later this year. By Britt Ashley
It was four years ago now that the car bomb exploded but Amal still remembers it all too vividly.
She was in the souk in her hometown of Kirkuk, in Iraq, at the time. She was there buying cloth and needles. As she completed her purchases and was preparing to leave, a huge blast ripped through the market.
‘Everything shook and, suddenly, I was on fire,’ the 23-year-old recalls. ‘My chest was burning and I tried to put it out with my hands but they caught fire too. It was terrible. I don’t know how I endured. The heat was so intense my neck fused to my chest. My own son didn’t recognise me afterwards.’
Yet, Amal, in some small way was one of the fortunate ones that day.
Not only did she survive, but local doctors – realising her injuries were beyond their capacity – sent her to the Reconstructive Surgery Hospital, in Amman, Jordan.
There, over several months, some of the Middle East’s most skilled doctors performed multiple rounds of surgery and skin grafts, along with intensive physiotherapy. They managed to separate her chest and neck, reduce the worst of the scarring and heal her shattered hands to the extent she can once again use her beloved needle and thread.
Three years on, she is stitching a dress to send to a cousin in Iraq. ‘Once,’ she smiles, ‘I thought this would be impossible.’
One of a kind
Amal is far from the only one whose life has been saved, changed or made inexorably better by the Reconstructive Surgery Hospital – which is currently marking its 10th anniversary.
It is a facility with a brief perhaps unlike any other in the world.
Originally opened in 2007 to treat victims of the Iraq war, it now takes in complex casualties from across the Middle East’s various conflict zones, including Syria and Palestine. Doctors here deal with missing limbs, bomb blast injuries, bullet wounds, shrapnel damage and severe post-traumatic shock every single day. Some 4,500 patients have been treated with reconstructive surgery, physiotherapy and mental health counselling. Many arrive having lost everything.
Now, the hospital, run by Médecins Sans Frontières, is marking its decade of astonishing humanitarian work with a photo exhibition capturing and telling the stories of 11 patients – including Amal.
The series – called The Dawn Of Recovery and taken by Sicilian photographer Alessio Mamo – is currently showcasing at Ras Al Ain Gallery in Amman, Jordan but is expected to tour the Middle East, including Dubai, this year.
‘Over the past 10 years, MSF has helped rebuild its patients lives by providing specialised services at The Reconstructive Surgery Hospital,” says spokesman Faris Al Jawad. ‘This exhibition shines a light on those individuals on the road to recovery.’
Among them is Mohammad, a Syrian shepherd from rural Homs who, in 2016, found himself and his sheep on the edge of a battle between government soldiers and opposition forces. As he ran for cover, a grenade exploded in his face, tearing apart his jaw, chin and teeth.
Mohammad, a Syrian shepherd from rural Homs who, in 2016, found himself and his sheep on the edge of a battle between government soldiers and opposition forces. As he ran for cover, a grenade exploded in his face, tearing apart his jaw, chin and teeth
‘Bombs don’t ask if you’re a fighter,’ he says. ‘They just kill everything. They just fall and kill.’
Unable to eat or speak properly, he was sent to the hospital in Jordan, where he has received 35 maxillofacial operations which have enabled him to use his jaw again. While recovering, he has learned to read and write Arabic too. ‘But my wish is still to return to my sheep,’ says the 23-year-old.
Qatada also dreams of returning home one day – to Aden.
He was caught in a missile attack in the Yemen capital. ‘The last thing I remember was being in my car,’ he says today.‘When I woke up, I could feel pain all over my body. I couldn’t use my hands, my right arm was fractured, my left was disabled and both my legs had been amputated.’
Arriving at the Reconstructive Surgery Hospital, Qatada was fitted with prosthetic legs and received a complex nerve transplant in his arms to save the use of his hands. His recovery was such that he and wife, Kifah, have had their third son while in Jordan and now hope to be resettled in the West before, one day, returning to Yemen.
The hospital itself has carried out more than 11,000 operations in its 10 years. Such has been its success that in 2015 it expanded moving into a new and specially renovated hospital building. Patients are identified by a specialist network of MSF medical liaison officers who are based across the Middle East. Those who are selected for treatment generally have their travel to Jordan funded and accommodation provided at the hospital itself.
Staff and surgeons are a mix of local doctors and international experts. One is Dr Nasr Al Deen Al Omari, a psycho-social counsellor who has worked with MSF for five years. Here, he deals with the mental health issues of patients at the facility.
‘Our patients are mainly the casualties of war so (as well as their physical health) our aim is to bring back mental stability to their lives, and help them re-assimilate with their communities,’ he explains.‘They have suffered severe traumas caused by the violent events they have witnessed, which has led to the loss of their loved ones, or destruction of their property, or eviction and displacement.
‘So, it is extremely important to understand what these patients have been through, in order to plan for a treatment that suits their situation, and the nature of their suffering.’
Indeed, helping others understand this suffering – as well as what the hospital does to help with recovery – is exactly the aim of the new exhibition.
‘This work is so important but so often goes under the radar,’ says spokesman Mr AL Jawad again.‘It is right that, after 10 years, we mark the difference these doctors are making.’