February 2013

On July 10 last year Rama Karabi, 15, and her parents were going to visit her sister in the government-controlled town of Ariha in Syria’s Idlib province. When their car came to a steep hill she and her mother got out to walk. At that moment she was shot in the neck by a regime sniper.

“When Rama fell I thought she was scared and had fainted,” her mother, Hasnaa, said. “Then I saw blood coming from her neck and began to scream.”

Today the girl lies, deathly pale, in a bed in a rehabilitation centre in this Turkish border town. She is almost completely paralysed. She has some movement in her arms, but cannot uncurl her fingers. “I’m trying not to give up,” she said. “I’m trying not to let sorrow overwhelm me. I’m trying to accept what has happened to me because otherwise it’s so difficult.”

Her father, Radwan, is also struggling to cope with the tragedy that has befallen the fourth of his five children. “I feel as if there’s something burning in my heart,” he said. “I hope God takes revenge on this regime. They have no values, none. It’s not just my girl — all over Syria people are being killed and injured.”

The rehabilitation centre, which occupies a former hotel and is funded largely by Syrian expatriate doctors, provides ample proof of that. It has 80 patients: men, women and children spirited out of Syria for treatment in Turkey. About 30 are paralysed. The others have lost eyes or limbs or suffered other grievous injuries that will afflict them for the rest of their lives. A few are rebel fighters but most are civilians, innocent victims of Syria’s interminable conflict, collateral damage from an ever more barbaric and sickening war.

Rama’s room-mate, for example, is Amna Shabib, 65, a mother of seven and grandmother more times than she can count. She was harvesting olives in her village in Idlib province when a shell exploded nearby. The shrapnel tore through the tree, knocking her off her ladder. She broke her back and will never walk again.

Along the corridor, having his bandages changed, is Malik Ahmad, an 11-year-old boy who was herding sheep in the countryside outside Hama when a fighter jet attacked his village. His left leg was severed just below the hip.

Nidal Ahmed, also 11, lies in his bed, grinning broadly. Then his father draws back the blankets to reveal two shattered legs, the bones held in place by external fixators. He says that Nidal was buying bread with his older brother in the rebel-held town of Ma’arat al-Nu’aman two months ago when a Scud missile exploded nearby. The brother was killed outright, and it seems impossible that Nidal can ever walk again, but no one admits that. Propped on his bedhead is a skateboard, a poignant gift from Nidal’s family to encourage him to fight.

Every room yields heartbreaking tales of wrecked lives, and in every room the victims’ helpless relatives beg for help from Western visitors.

Maysaa Ziad’s father, a rebel fighter, was killed in battle nine months ago. Last autumn their house in Idlib province was partially destroyed by a bomb, so Maysaa’s mother and eight children moved to a cave, a not uncommon practice in today’s Syria. Maysaa, 12, ventured out to play one day. A sniper at a regime checkpoint 800 metres away shot her through her back. The sniper then fired at Maysaa’s brother as he tried to drag her into the cave.

Yusef el-Akhras, 20, a nursing student, was shot in the neck while taking part in a demonstration near Aleppo university last summer. Today he lies immobile in bed. He can just about move his arms, but cannot open or close his hands. He says he does not regret attending the demonstration. “This is nothing for the sake of winning freedom in Syria.”

Saleh Hossein Gahyari, 12, was a child seeking glory. He dreamt of being a rebel fighter like his cousins. Four months ago he was taking food to rebels near his village of Abu Dahour in Idlib province when he was hit in the spine and right eye by shrapnel from a mortar. He may regain his sight, but not his mobility.

Saleh shares a room with a bearded fighter named Rasim Khadour, 25, and they call each other brothers — fellow warriors. Khadour was shot through the spine by a sniper in Homs eight months ago. Comrades smuggled him out of the city through a sewer. He has cancelled his wedding — “I didn’t want her to get tired of me” — but he, too, insists that he has no regrets: “I don’t mind if I never walk again if we get rid of this tyranny.”

What will happen to Khadour and the other paralysed patients is unclear. They cannot return to their imploding country, now or in the foreseeable future. Their families lack the means to care for them. “We can’t put them out on the streets,” Yasir Alsyed, a lawyer from Idlib who manages the rehabilitation centre, said.

Mr Alsyed is desperate for Western help, but said that his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. He complains bitterly that Europeans appear to care more about their dogs than human beings. “We need places for these people but nobody is doing anything,” he says. “It’s very difficult. I never imagined we’d be in this situation, with people’s lives being destroyed like this. It makes it a bit easier when we cry.”