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SURUC, Turkey — The men and women wait in the hospital parking lot to see if their children are among the dead and wounded who arrive each day from the besieged Syrian town of Kobane. Their children have taken up arms in the grim fight to stop the town falling to better-armed fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And the battle is not going well.
ISIL’s artillery bombardment of Kobane is visible from Turkey and is shown on news clips that play on a loop in shops and hospital waiting rooms throughout the region. It is to those hospitals that the Kurdish casualties are taken after particularly intense days of fighting.
Sirens sound, and a voice from a hospital loudspeaker asks bystanders in the parking lot to clear the way. When the ambulance or car pulls up to the emergency entrance, a crush of people quickly crowds it, and they strain their necks to get a peek. Whose child is it? What is his or her condition?
When the ambulance enters the lot and turns left, heading not to the emergency room entrance but toward the morgue, sounds of grief fill the air. The doors open, bystanders follow the gurney into the underground facility, and haunting cries echo into the lot.
“Martyrs are immortal! Long live the resistance of the YPG,” they shout, referring to the Kurdish militia fighting to protect Kobane — a group whose relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey has led Ankara to hold back on deploying its powerful military to help the town’s defenders.
The fallout from ISIL’s advance on Kobane in mid-September has overwhelmed the Turkish town of Suruc, now bursting with a chaotic mix of refugees, military vehicles and the wounded.
The town has become a magnet not only for those leaving the battle across the border but also for Kurds from elsewhere in Turkey hoping to help Kobane hold off its attackers. Some have crossed into the besieged town to fight; others with medical expertise have been moonlighting at hospitals and makeshift clinics to alleviate the strain on facilities neither built nor staffed to respond to war.
The Ursu private hospital in the nearby city of Urfa is one of many that has opened its doors to fighters too severely injured for treatment in Suruc's public hospital, a small facility that lacks a trauma center.
Owned by Kurds and staffed by many Kurdish doctors and nurses, Ursu is a welcoming place for Kobane patients who share the language and culture of their caregivers. On a recent afternoon Ursu’s main ICU was over capacity after 12 fighters arrived the previous night. Seven nurses on the unit — some of whom were well past their 20th straight hour on duty — moved from bed to bed checking the bags, tubes and wires attached to the men and women under their care.
“It’s hard for all of us,” said Veysi, a 28-year-old nurse who only gave his first name because he is a government nurse and, he said, is not permitted to volunteer at private hospitals. “All of the injured people are young. They’re 23, 24, 25.”
He pointed to a sleeping man across the room who had left a particularly strong impression on him. The young fighter told Veysi that he decided to join the YPG after his only brother was beheaded by ISIL fighters several months ago. He had no other siblings and wept as he remembered his brother. The nurse still can't shake that conversation from his mind.
He and his colleagues said they were also moved by the desire among their patients to recover quickly so that they can return to the battle.
Nidar Sehho, a 23-year-old who arrived at Ursu nine days earlier with shrapnel and gunshot wounds to his back, was injured before and saw his current condition as just another temporary setback. In good spirits, considering his condition, the baby-faced fighter showed off wounds from previous battles in Syria’s grinding war: A scar from a bullet that had entered his arm, courtesy, he said, of Jabhat Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate; a leg wound inflicted by the Syrian regime; and another scar in his arm from ISIL. And now wounds on his back. “This one is the worst,” he said.
Teenage women were also among the wounded. One arrived with broken legs after jumping from a window, fearful of being captured as ISIL fighters advanced. A 14-year-old girl lay across from her, nursing two-day-old wounds from a firefight. A 19-year-old who goes by the nom de guerre Nejbir arrived the day before with shrapnel wounds to her chest.
Turkey has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Kobane and is footing the bill for the patients flooding its hospitals — including YPG fighters who change into civilian clothes before crossing the border. But the reluctance of Turkey and the West to use their full military capability to stop the town from falling to ISIL has fueled anger and skepticism in the streets.
Over a hurried lunch, nurses and doctors swapped far-fetched conspiracy theories: One suggested that U.S. airstrikes in Kobane are intentionally targeting open fields. Another accused Ankara — which has a historically troubled relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish minority — of rooting for Kobane to fall. All scraped for ideas to help them understand the horrors they’ve seen.
Three floors down, the acting head of the hospital — who did not want his real name to be used since he too is a government employee illegally volunteering at a private facility — was more interested in the minute-to-minute news on Kobane. “As the fighting gets worse, we have to get ready for more and more wounded,” he said.