Turkey: Syrian refugees struggle to overcome amputation trauma

A Turkish doctor fabricates prosthetic limbs for Syrian children at the Alliance of International Doctors center in Istanbul - March 15, 2019 (Anadolu Agency)

A Turkish doctor fabricates prosthetic limbs for Syrian children at the Alliance of International Doctors center in Istanbul - March 15, 2019 (Anadolu Agency)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

“To preserve your life, we amputated your right leg,” with these words, inside a room at the Sham and Sakura Hospital in Istanbul, Syrian young man Sari Hassan Watti woke up, who survived the earthquake in Turkey on February 6, 2023.

The shock of losing his leg lingered for a moment before he asked the doctors if the danger of death was over after the amputation, which was his primary concern at that moment, according to what he told Enab Baladi.

Sari is one of many Syrians who faced the same fate of losing limbs after the earthquake, amid the absence of official Turkish statistics on the number of amputation cases among earthquake victims of all nationalities.

According to the Alliance of International Doctors (AID), between 1,300 and 1,500 people lost limbs in Turkey due to the earthquake, a number that includes amputation of one or both limbs, legs or arms, while the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) estimated the number at about 850 people without specifying the number of Syrian refugees among them.

Despite their suffering, Syrian refugees whose limbs were amputated are struggling to continue their lives, balancing between the past and the present. Several of them spoke to Enab Baladi about changes and differences in their lives and mental states more than a year after the earthquake.

Harsh experience

Since 2017, Sari Hassan Watti from Salqin city, part of Idlib in northwest Syria, has been staying in Antakya, southern Turkey, and moved to study political sciences and international relations in Mardin four years ago. It was during the mid-semester break (the time of the earthquake) when he visited his friends in Antakya, experiencing the disaster, as the earthquake’s intensity reached 7.7 on the Richter scale, centered near Kahramanmaraş city, Turkey.

At exactly 4:17 AM, Sari and his friends felt the earthquake and, unable to escape the second floor of their building, he remained trapped at the building’s stairs for over 40 hours without losing consciousness, according to his account to Enab Baladi.

In the initial hours after the earthquake, Sari was completely unable to move due to being buried under the rubble. After continuous screaming along with a few remaining neighbors, several young Syrians heard them managing to slightly clear the debris using very primitive tools, as he mentioned.

Sari continued his story, stating that rescue attempts were unsuccessful even when the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) teams arrived after 24 hours due to lack of equipment. Another attempt hours later succeeded when his friends brought someone who owned the necessary tools, including an electricity generator and saws, and he was pulled from underneath the rubble by Syrian and Turkish workers.

While his rescue took less than two days, which is not considered lengthy compared to many others, the possibility of his leg’s amputation seemed likely because it was damaged under the debris, leading to severe outcomes that changed his life, according to his account.

Raghda Kafr Jasim, originating from Idlib city, did not only lose her foot but also three of her children. The delay of the rescue teams working in the earthquake-affected areas contributed to Raghda and her husband and their remaining children being under the rubble for 13 days. The extent of the disaster and destruction were among the reasons for this delay, as she told Enab Baladi.

Regarding rescue efforts, Raghda mentioned that the process lasted about two continuous days, as they were living on the first floor within a seven-story building that completely collapsed on Jumhuriyat Street in Antakya.

On February 6, 2024, while commemorating the first anniversary of the earthquake, the Turkish Anadolu Agency published figures indicating that 53,537 people died, without specifying the number of Syrians among them, while 107,213 others were injured.

Escaping death

A few seconds were a turning point in the lives of more than 1.75 million Syrian refugees in southern Turkey, reaching 47% of the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to February 2023 statistics. In the same period, around 3.5 million refugees lived under the Temporary Protection system throughout the country.

Raghda, in her thirties, upon being rescued from the rubble of her house, was gasping her last breaths unaware that her foot would be amputated. She told Enab Baladi that she did not feel her foot injury during the previous days under the rubble or even in the hospital, but the presence of a small glass piece in her toe could have led to paralysis of her entire body if it had not been amputated, according to the doctors at Adana Hospital for Raghda.

After a month and a half, Raghda awoke to the doctors informing her that her three children had died and that her foot must be amputated. She agreed to undergo the surgery without hesitation, nearly devoid of emotion after receiving the shocking news, as she described.

Raghda said that her foot amputation would not have occurred if the medical intervention had been faster, but the magnitude of the disaster led to a slow response to her situation, complicated by the absence of first-degree relatives to sign the necessary papers. Her husband, with whom she reunited three months after the quake, had been transferred to a hospital in Mersin for physical therapy.

“I wasn’t sad or happy; all my focus was on the idea of escaping death,” describes Sari Hassan Watti, recalling the moment he was informed about his leg amputation three days after he lost consciousness. The surgery was performed on February 18, 2023, in Istanbul, where he was airlifted due to the severity of his condition.

The young man in his twenties did not anticipate that his injury would not end with the amputation of his right leg. He thought he would be able to move around with medical crutches immediately upon getting up. However, discovering that he had dead nerves in his other foot needing physical therapy disappointed him and made him feel helpless.

Life after amputation

Accepting the idea of amputation was not easy for those who spoke with Enab Baladi; the shock is still present in their minds, and gradually, accepting reality and living with it became a challenge for amputees to prove they could continue their lives anew, even if they lost one of their limbs.

Sari Watti emphasized the importance of treating people with disabilities calmly and not giving them the feeling that losing a limb means the end of opportunities.

Sari noted that joining a community of people with disabilities made him more understanding of the correct way to handle them.

As he began to recover, Sari decided to continue his educational journey, needing a sense of accomplishment. He managed to get out of his situation and resumed his academic life. Three months later, he attended his graduation ceremony in June 2023, considering it a message to himself and the world that disability was never a barrier to success.

Raghda and her husband realized they had no choice but to accept and live with reality despite its bitterness; however, they decided to move out of the city where they lost their three children and she lost her foot.

235 Amputation cases

The Basmet Amal Humanitarian Association operating in southern Turkey and northern Syria documented more than 235 amputation cases due to the earthquake among those who contacted the association, with each case having a different story of suffering, according to specialist Ghiyath Sawan.

The association played a role in installing more than 45 artificial limbs by 2024, where the patient directly contacted specialist Ghiyath Sawan for case examination and measurement, receiving instructions and physical therapy exercises to prepare the injured for fitting the prosthetic limb after undergoing various treatments and training sessions, as Sawan mentioned.

He stated that after fitting the limb and walking, patients need ongoing follow-ups and maintenance of the limb and its periodic replacement during the first two years after fitting, identifying the high cost of the limbs as the biggest obstacle faced by these steps. The Basmet Amal Association is working to cover these costs in southern Turkey for free.

In Turkey, there are 3,115,844 Syrian refugees under the Temporary Protection law, according to the latest statistics released by the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management.



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