"I fought for the Islamic State (IS) because they paid more," Mahmoud Omar explains as he waits for his new legs to be fitted. "They gave us better weapons than the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and I wanted to fight the regime, so I went where the money and the weapons were."
The 25-year-old Syrian fighter-turned-taxi driver, who lost his legs in air strikes, sat smoking a cigarette in a plastic chair outside a prosthetics clinic in Reyhanli, a Turkish town three miles from the Syrian border.
A common gateway for jihadists traveling to Syria to join IS, Reyhanli and its prosthetics clinic have now also become a hub for the hordes of Syrians and foreign fighters who have lost limbs during the war. This is a place where President Bashar al-Assad's forces mix with FSA rebels, where IS fighters sit alongside Syrian families, their affiliations a moot point.
'All we ask is that they leave their weapons at the door.'
"It's our policy to treat everybody even if we have strong negative feelings towards them," Dr. Mahrous Alsoud, one of the founding members of Syria Relief, the NGO which runs the clinic, told VICE News. "We try to maintain a higher standard, and all we ask is that they leave their weapons at the door."
The cardiologist is very familiar with the complexities of the conflict, having defected from Assad's regime himself six months prior to the Syrian uprising before fleeing to England. He returned a few years later to help those caught up in the war. "James Foley slept at my house in Syria the day before he was kidnapped," said Alsoud. "I offered him a ride across the border and back into Turkey, but he said he was fine. That same day he was taken."
Working with people affected by the war in so many different ways is a challenge, stressed Alsoud. "It's a complex emergency," he said. "These are traumatized people and we're doing our best to help them both as patients and by employing them in the clinics."
Dr. Mahrous Alsoud (pictured with an unnamed patient) has helped fit more than a thousand Syrians with prosthetic limbs. Photo by Mariah Quesada
Anyone can be treated for free at the clinic in Reyhanli, one of three set up in Syria and Turkey by NGO Syria Relief. Photo by Mariah Quesada.
Former patient Abdul Mola is one of a number of refugees who have been trained to help create and fit prosthetics and rehabilitate patients. The 15-year-old visited the clinic in February 2013, months after being shot by a sniper while traveling from Damascus to Homs to visit his family.
"I found out about them on the internet, got a lift across the border and they gave me a new leg," said Mola, smiling. Now the teenager helps fit limbs to the same kind of people who caused him to lose his. "I treat them with respect and with brotherhood like any other Syrian," he said.
Teenage patient Abdul Mola now works for the clinic, helping to make and fit the prosthetics. Photo by Mariah Quesada.
The prosthetic limbs are handcrafted at the clinic by staff who include Syrian refugees. Photo by Mariah Quesada.
The clinic is one of three run by Alsoud and four international doctors in Turkey and Syria. They are hoping to open more, including one close to Aleppo. Need far outstrips supply, thanks to the barrel bombs reportedly favored by Assad's regime — explosive devices filled with shrapnel and chemicals that cause devastating injuries.
More than 30,000 Syrians are estimated to have lost limbs during the conflict. Syria Relief has fitted prosthetics to more than a thousand of them, free of charge. "We started this clinic because there was an incredible need for this type of work," said Alsoud. "There is a lack of surgeons and very poor medical service within Syria so if anyone injures their arm or leg, it usually ends in amputation."
Loss of limbs is a common injury for people on all sides of the Syrian conflict. Photo of an unnamed patient by Mariah Quesada
Mola loves his new legs, he said, and loves helping to secure a future for other patients. "I'm passionate about this opportunity," he said. "My life has changed for the better since working here."
As the teenager adjusts Omar's new legs, the ex-IS member says he won't return to the battlefield — he's not interested in the jihadists' ideology. He will make a living from a taxi he's adapted to be able to drive with his new limbs. Closing the door to travel back to Syria, he explains: "Real strength comes from within. Now I'm a real fighter."
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