Hospitals along the Turkish-Syrian border are struggling to cope with the growing number of Syrian refugees. Many of them are army deserters, prepared to deal with the ordeals in hospital rather than face death at home.
Under fluorescent lights in a hallway outside the triage center at the public hospital here in Antakya, a 29-year-old former Syrian National Army soldier sat restless and tugging at a pink towel wrapped around his neck.
His shaved head bore one of the causes of his anxiety - a centimeter-wide scar, splitting his cranium from left ear to right, the work of former army colleagues who attacked him after he defected to join the country's rebel fighters.
The other cause?
As a government soldier, he said quietly, "I shot people."
Unable to find medical treatment in Syria - a fate leveraged on any who dare desert President Bashar Assad's armed forces - he made his way to the Turkish border and treatment at the Hatay Antakya State Hospital, where on any given day hundreds of Syrian refugees line the halls.
Care is free and sponsored by the Turkish government. On its sidewalks and driveways, Arabic is now as prevalent as Turkish.
The rambling cluster of nondescript cement buildings, in a middle-class area near the city center, has become both refuge for wounded Syrians and gathering point for a community displaced and looking to find its footing in this new world so close to home.
People arrive to pick up post-appointment relatives. Stories are circulated as refugees trickle in from the besieged cities of Latakia, Hama and rebel stronghold Idlib.
Next to the soldier sat Samir, a 25-year-old university student from Homs, who had caught a piece of shrapnel in his foot two weeks before.
"I feel safety in Turkey," he said.
Samir used a cigarette lighter to tell his story, flicking it on and off.
"Sometimes Assad troops lit people on fire," he said, "and I would take the charred bodies to the city center to show people."
Refuge for refugees
Turkish government figures released last Tuesday say more than 42,000 refugees have fled across the border to Turkey, where they cook, eat and sleep in sprawling refugee camps. There are now more than 112,000 refugees in total in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
The popularity of the public hospital symbolizes a slow integration into Turkish society, as the duration of the civil war between Assad and rebel fighters known as the Free Syrian Army remains unknown.
As clashes escalate between Assad's forces and the opposition, refugees have been pouring over the Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish borders. Last week, Syrian activists near Antakya staged their boldest move yet, physically taking control of a Turkish border post.
Over the weekend, an estimated 30,000 residents fled Damascus amid fighting so heavy it led to global speculation about Assad's possible imminent collapse.
"Damascus is a new chapter, but not the final chapter," cautioned Ausama Monajed, a leading Syrian dissident and member of the Syrian National Council. "It's going to take a few more months before we see another big development. But that will depend on [what happens in] Damascus - like if the government leaks biological weapons, it may scare off big portions of the population. Neighborhoods have been shelled, areas leveled. But this is the capitol, they can't do much without compromising their own security."
In the meantime, Antakya - and its free medical care - have provided safe haven.
Most who arrive from Syrian cities close to the border speak some Turkish or have relatives with Turkish blood, "so it hasn't been a big issue for them to integrate quickly. The terrain, culture, climate - it's pretty much the same," Monajed said.
But for those from the farther-off cities of Homs, Hama and Damascus - home to many defecting Assad fighters - it's a bit harder.
"They're frustrated," Monajed added. "The Turkish government's been trying to do its best, but they can't go back to their homes, their businesses, and that affects the morale inside the refugee camps."
Safer than Syria
But at the public hospital, they said they felt safer in Turkey than at home, where many, according to Samir the student, have been taking up arms against Asaad armed with "nothing other than sticks."
Outside, Halab, who has been in Antakya for a month after fleeing Idlib, was coming in to pick up medicine. "My friends and relatives all come here," he said. He was carrying a bag of fruit to distribute to those waiting in the crowded halls.
Like so many Syrian refugees, he referred to Assad as "the Dog."
"Most Syrians come to this hospital because it's free, and in Syria, the Dog shot at the hospitals so we have to come to Turkey for treatment."
Nearby, Adil, a 40-year old from Latakia, waited for news of injured relatives being treated for shrapnel wounds - a group run from the camps to the hospital.
He was one of the few to complain about the treatment.
"One of my relatives had blood coming from his mouth, and for four hours, he just sat there," he said.
On a public bus leading back to the center of Antakya, more Arabic than Turkish could be heard. Hamas Zacharia, 21, and his friend Sofi, 22, joined the crowd. Both are defected Assad soldiers who joined the rebels and suffered for their actions - Zacharia with a bullet to the arm, Sofi with two shots to his abdomen.
He drove the distance from Idlib to Antaya, untreated, after hospitals at home refused him.
"In Syria, hospitals are really dangerous," Sofi said. "Especially the public hospitals. If we go there, they will cut off our heads because we left Assad's army. The injured [defected] soldiers all come here to Antakya to this hospital now, 20 or 30 a month."
The sense of community has been amplified by a common thread - hatred for their President.
"Make sure you write that he is 'the Dog,'" said Halab, swinging his friends' snacks from arm to arm. "It is very, very important that you do this."
Author: Karen Leigh, Antakya
Editor: Rob Mudge