The silent deaths of refugees in Ersal: 18 perished in 45 days

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Syrian refugee children sit outside their tent near the hills of Ersal. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Thursday, December 11, 2014

The security situation in Ersal made everyone forget that there are 80,000 refugees living there in a harsh climate and poor medical conditions. In a month and a half, there has been 18 deaths among refugees in Ersal, including 12 children, that we heard nothing of. These same security conditions had led international organizations to abandon the town in August, leaving behind innocent people dying silently one by one.

Fourteen-year-old Kh. F. – let’s call him Khaled – died on December 9. Before him, F. H. – an 18-day-old infant – died because no one could take her to a hospital outside Ersal. We saw another 17-day-old infant dying. We did not ask her name, her face was enough to call her Malak (Angel). Born in a tent, she died from the cold, as did others. Just this week, four Syrian children died in Ersal.

Eleven refugees, including nine children, have died in Ersal since the beginning of December, joining seven others who died in November. We are discussing here 18 deaths, including 12 children, in a span of one month and a half. Twelve children die and people carry on with their lives as usual, this is a tragedy for humanity even before being a tragedy for the refugees themselves. The number of deaths is likely higher because the figure we have is based only on information from al-Hay'a al-Toubia field hospital in Ersal. This means dozens of children are dying without anyone hearing about them.

There is something strange about the death of these children passing without the uproar we’ve gotten used to, an uproar that in actuality never got us anywhere. But still, having someone scream in the face of this death is necessary, it tells us that there is still a pulse beating in this world. The absence of any noise, however, killed this pulse.

These numbers were announced by Dr. Qassem al-Zein, who heads al-Hay’a al-Toubia facility in Ersal. He said the medical situation in the town is catastrophic, pointing out that this is just the number of deaths at al-Hay’a hospital. Three children died this month from pneumonia caused by the cold weather, he added. What is shocking is that all these deaths are in Ersal and not the hills of Ersal, except one person who came from the hills for treatment at the makeshift hospital.

The hospital report refers to Malak who was born in a tent in the hills of Ersal. She was 17-days-old when she came to the hospital on the morning of December 3, ill from the cold. Her tiny body interceded for her at the checkpoint to get to the hospital. There were no empty incubators available, however, “so the hospital sent her inside Lebanon but al-Laboui checkpoint prevented her parents from crossing so she returned to al-Hay’a hospital with its modest capabilities where she passed away at 2:00 pm.” Her tiny body could not take it anymore. Malak died.

Khaled died on December 9 from acute kidney failure. The other five children died due to birth defects in their skulls and limbs, according to Zein. Serious concerns are raised about the reasons behind these birth defects. Zein noticed that at the beginning of the crisis and the influx of refugees, “we used to see one case of congential disease per month. Today, we see four cases per month.” The doctor is not sure about the reason but he said that “a lot of women were in Syria early on in their pregnancy, that’s why I think these congenital diseases are due to substances used in the shelling.”

The medical situation in Ersal is catastrophic, but it has not spurred international organizations to return to the town to save the lives of innocent refugees. Not that long ago, there was a Hepatitis A outbreak in Ersal and more than 150 refugees were infected due to water contamination. Now, Zein said “the mumps is beginning to spread among children as 24 cases of infection were recorded last month. Bad conditions from the cold weather, malnutrition, lack of hygiene and overcrowding in the camps exacerbate health problems leading to testicular, pancreatic and other infections.”

The union of relief and development organizations working in Ersal said the conduct of the Lebanese army varies depending on the security situation but most of the time, it allows drug shipments to pass after inspecting them. Before the clashes that erupted last August (between the Lebanese army on one hand and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Nusra Front on the other), al-Hay’a hospital was able to procure 90 percent of the drugs it needs. Today, it can barely get 40 percent because of the dangerous commute.

A medical source in the hills of Ersal spoke of the tragic health conditions among the refugees living there. “Some children and women are sick and urgently need to go to Ersal. There are a lot of cases of asthma and bronchitis, not to mention flu and common colds.” There is also a severe shortage of medication among the refugees and one death was recorded during the storm, according to the source.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is in constant contact with field hospitals and clinics in Ersal, providing them with drugs and vaccines through its partners. External Relations Assistant at UNHCR in the Bekaa, Lisa Abu Khaled, said the UNHCR transfers critical cases to hospitals that have signed contracts with them, but sometimes parents do not go because the road is dangerous. She refused to acknowledge any deaths except that of a three-year-old girl whose family could not transfer her to the hospital recommended by the UNHCR. The Commission learned of only two cases of the mumps virus. Abu Khaled said there are vaccines for this virus in the Amel Association Clinic in Ersal, as well as in mobile clinics in the town.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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