DAMASCUS, Syria — Wael, 12, left his house in the city center of Damascus at 7 a.m. Dec. 19 on his bike and headed to the suburb of Dummar, 10 kilometers (3.7 miles) west of Damascus, braving the cold and the challenging road to participate in the charity marathon called "Badna Nerkod La Basma” (We Want to Run for Basma). The marathon was organized in an effort to support children suffering from cancer and to raise funds for the BASMA Association, which looks after cancer patients.
Wael, along with 2,000 others from all age groups, assembled at the starting line in front of Rusty Restaurant, which helped organize the first marathon of its kind in cooperation with several civil organizations and associations in Damascus. Because of the Syrian war BASMA Association is no longer able to provide enough care for all children suffering from cancer due to the lack of material resources and medicine, and the absence of governmental support. The marathon’s aim was to collect donations.
Al-Monitor met with Firas Inaya, the man who had come up with the idea for the marathon. He said, “BASMA Association has made many contributions to children with cancer, and now it is our turn to support BASMA in these tough circumstances that Syria is going through. This is where the idea of the marathon came from, and we have invited everyone to participate via social media.”
Inaya added, “We managed to fulfill two goals with this event. Our main goal is the humanitarian one, which is to collect donations through the participation fee of 500 Syrian pounds [$3] per person. Second, we managed to create an entertaining activity that involved residents from across Damascus, despite all the military and political circumstances rocking Syria, to prove the Syrians’ determination to live.”
Regarding the choice of Dummar as a starting point for the marathon, Inaya said that it is the safest area in Damascus. Mortars have not hit the suburbs yet, and this gives the large number of participants a sense of comfort. There are no military checkpoints except at Dummar’s entrances, and the traffic in the streets, which have been closed for the marathon, can be regulated. If the marathon had taken place in Damascus, there would have been a traffic crisis.
The charity event started at 9 a.m., and some participants rode their bikes and their scooters while many walked. For two hours, the participants forgot that Syria was ravaged by war, and they sang along to the sounds of bands. The participants roamed the calm streets of Dummar and finally returned to the starting point.
Ahmad, who participated in the marathon with his friends, told Al-Monitor, “As Syrians, we share part of the responsibility. The war in Syria has united us in sympathizing with others’ pain. We came from across Damascus to contribute, even if with a small amount, to bring back the stolen smiles on the faces of children suffering from cancer.”
Choking on his words, he added, “The children are losing the most in this war, which no longer distinguishes between kids and adults.”
The pharmaceutical sector in Syria has been facing various problems that coincided with the security crisis. Monzer al-Khoudari, a pharmacist in Rif Dimashq, told Al-Monitor that some products are unavailable. “Most critical medications are not available — including those used to treat children with cancer, heart diseases, diabetes and chronic illnesses — such as asthma sprays, seizure medication, cancer medication and insulin shots,” he said.
“Many of the medications are available in certain regions in Damascus only, but not in rural areas or other provinces. Medication in Damascus is usually more expensive due to monopolization and exploitation from all parties,” he said.
In this context, an employee at the Ministry of Health told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “On Dec. 18, a decision to destroy expired medication that had cost 1 billion Syrian pounds [$5.5 million] was issued. The medication had been stored in Pharmix’s warehouses for a long time.”
“The medication was missing from the market and was not available in pharmacies while patients were in desperate need. Many medications were not distributed, mainly Ritalin [to treat hyperactivity] and many cancer medications that cost citizens 30,000 Syrian pounds [$200] per packet,” the source added.
However, the source said that the decision to destroy the medications was not true, but was used to cover up the thefts in the Ministry of Health. The government is paying large sums of money for these medications. But, some corrupt officials who are known in the circles of the Ministry of Health sell them to drug monopolists who in turn sell them for double the price to patients who are in need, according to the source.
While the official media did not comment on the destruction of medications, Facebook activists spread the news. Majd Niazy, head of the pro-regime Syria Homeland Party, posted on her Facebook page a photo of the memorandum to destroy the medicine, and wrote: “This is the memorandum to destroy the medications that expired in September and October, [while we know] they have been unavailable [to patients] for more than six months. Syrian patients do not need more misery! Who is responsible for this? I wonder!”
According to governmental statements, the local pharmaceutical factories are not producing to their maximum capacity. Production is suspended at 25 factories out of 73, while the factories that produce medicine only use 40-50% of their capacity. This is why, most of the time, if factories can’t provide a specific medication, it is imported from friendly countries such as Iran. As a result of these measures, a certain medication might be unavailable until it is supplied. The statements indicated the loss of around 250 different medications in Syria, most of which are used to treat cancer patients.
Syrians who have health complications, especially cancer patients, are the only losers in this war, with the absence of governmental support and the corruption in the state’s medical institutions. Personal initiatives launched to back these patients remain their only ray of hope. The marathon participants hope that the modest sums they donated will draw a smile on cancer patients’ faces.
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