“We’re going to die of cancer, but the siege has made suffering a constant companion on our journey towards death,” Saeed al-Salih, a resident of the besieged district of Waer in Homs city, told the Syrian Voice.
Cancer patients in rebel-held, encircled areas of Homs province struggle to secure rare and expensive chemotherapy drugs. Early detection of the illness is also difficult given a lack of personnel and specialized machinery.
“There are 30 cancer patients in Waer who need constant medical attention because of a lack of proper medicine, although we’ve consistently petitioned the UN, the Red Crescent and Red Cross,” Dr. al-Majed al-Homsi told the Syrian Voice from Waer, besieged for two and a half years by regime forces.
“These organizations were occasionally able to get in small quantities of painkillers, and that’s it, because the regime prevents the entrance of various types of medicine, especially medicine used in treatment” said Dr. al-Homsi.
“A lack of clinics, and equipment specialized in cancer diagnosis have made things worse, because we can’t detect the illness at an early stage. This has caused a number of patients to die because cancer spreads rapidly within the body, a process that is very painful.”
Dr. Mohammed Darwish, from the city of al-Rastan in the northern Homs countryside, which is also besieged by regime forces, told the Syrian Voice, “I supervise ten patients with different types of cancer, including esophageal and colon cancer.”
“I do as much as I can for them given the hospital’s limited capabilities, and the siege has pushed a large number of patients to go to regime-held areas in Homs city” for treatment, he said from the al-Rastan field hospital.
“Diagnosis in the northern Homs countryside is done via biopsies and other available means of testing. We’ll often smuggle these biopsies to labs outside the countryside in order to make sure they’re accurate.”
It is extremely difficult to secure chemotherapy drugs in the northern Homs countryside. The regime imposes a security cordon on the area by means of checkpoints that residents cannot cross, except people considered nonthreatening like women and children.
“Crossing into regime-held territory is a huge risk. They might arrest me or conduct a ‘forced disappearance’ because I’m coming from a rebel-held, besieged district,” Saeed al-Salih, the cancer patient in Waer, told the Syrian Voice.
Al-Salih’s fears are based on reports of the forced disappearance of several patients who sought treatment in regime territory, including one man from al-Rastan who went for dialysis and never came back, said the Syrian Voice’s Homs correspondent.
“It’s extremely difficult to get painkillers or treatment for my daughter,” Um Hana, mother of 12 year old Hana who has cancer, told the Syrian Voice.
“I can’t bring her for treatment in regime areas because of my health condition, and my husband’s fear of getting arrested,” she added.
Hana needs care in a specialized hospital, including a bone marrow transplant. The disease has spread in her body, said Um Hana, and field hospitals have been unable to do anything for her.
“There’s no one to pick up the cost of the chemotherapy, but the bigger problem is the lack of any organization that works to obtain these drugs.”
Some residents have searched for alternative solutions, unable to get treatment in regime territory because of the difficulty of crossing checkpoints and fear of arrest.
“They can’t bear watching their kids die painfully before their eyes,” said Khalid, a sixty year old man whose son has cancer.
“I cut across the al-Asi river at night, and through forests and farms to get to an acquaintance in a pro-regime village north of Rastan to get medicine for my son, and come back the same way–which could get me killed.”
Treatment is available in regime territory several kilometers away from besieged areas of Homs. “Treatment is banned for patients in encircled neighborhoods but allowed in those with the regime,” one patient who preferred anonymity told the Syrian Voice.
The regime allowed a charity to establish a cancer clinic last December to serve residents of pro-regime areas in Homs city. Checkpoints prevent residents in Waer, and villages of the northern Homs countryside from reaching the center.