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Syrian government-held Qamishli airport: epicenter to coronavirus outbreak in northeast Syria

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – Qamishli International Airport, which is held by the Syrian government in the country’s northeast, has been the main corridor for passing the coronavirus pandemic from the capital Damascus to be spread in northeast Syria which is under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration.

An employee in Qamishli airport preferred not to mention his name said Qamishli Airport receives every week ten flights, including six flights by cargo plane (Yushin) in addition to two flights by Syrian Airlines and two other flights by Cham Wings company.

Therefore about 3500 people arrive in the city every week and then travel to the areas of northeastern Syria. 

Qamishli Airport is almost the only outlet for residents of northeastern Syria to Damascus, because travel by land was suspended due to the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) group and the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition armed groups over large areas of the Syrian territories.
Most of those heading to the capital Damascus are patients to be treated in there as the northeast lacks improved medical facilities in addition to thousands of university students.

Yushin is a military cargo plane that takes off from Damascus every day and lands in Qamishli and vice versa. As a result of the failure of civil aviation flights to meet need of big number of passengers to and from the capital, the Yushin was used to transport passengers in addition to shipments.

The plane from the inside looks like a large warehouse that does not have seats except few near the small windows. 

These seats are usually taken by Syrian government officers and members of intelligence forces in the government-held area of Qamishli. 

“But civilian passengers are crammed like sheep and sit on the floor of the cargo plane,” some travelers told their experience to North Press.

Many photos taken for passengers on the Yushin went viral on social media. The photos showed hundreds of people crowded inside what looked like a large warehouse.

Juan Mohammed, a surgeon who was among  400 passengers on board Yushin that took off on June 28 from Damascus and landed at Qamishli International Airport.

In about 48 hours, the symptoms of coronavirus infection began to appear on Juan. 

After taking the required tests, it was positive and thus he was subjected to home quarantine until recovered after two weeks.

“Before boarding the plane, about 400 passengers were crumpled in a closed hall at Damascus Airport amid high temperatures, which forced us to take off the masks and gloves,” Juan said.

"I’m sure that I got infected in Damascus Airport’s hall," he said.

 

SYRIAN GOVERNEMT RESPONSIBLE

In April, Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria (AANES) accused and criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) of concealing news of a coronavirus case. AANES also criticized the Syrian government which control Qamishli International Airport for allowing several people to pass into administration territory without being tested for COVID-19.

AANES in Syria have taken several measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic in their region where the health system has been debilitated by almost a decade of civil war.

On March 23, a full curfew was imposed in the region to prevent the spread of the virus. The lockdown was then extended until the end of April.

Before the spread of the pandemic, there had been a testing laboratory in northeast Syria. But it was lost in October 2019 when Turkey invaded the Kurdish-majority city of Serekaniye. Turkish shelling of the hospital in the city left the laboratory inoperable, as a report by the Rojava Information Center explained on April 5.

Thus, AANES was obliged to send coronavirus tests to Damascus, but authorities there refused to receive them.

Then four PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing machines arrived in northeast Syria from the Kurdistan Region in April to help AANES test for coronavirus infections.

But these aforementioned procedures and measures by the Autonomous Administration could not prevent the spread of the pandemic in northeast Syria despite the total lockdown.

A government staff from Qamishli Airport told North-Press that the flights of the Syrian Aviation Company were suspended for about a year, while the flights of the Cham Wings Company stopped in March until mid-June, while Yushin flights remained transporting civilians.

The huge number formed a heavy burden on the Autonomous Administration health facilities as they had to test thousands of passengers coming from Damascus every week.

As this was very hard due to lack of health facilities, the Autonomous Administration security and health departments took the passengers to quarantine in a series of buildings on the outskirt of the city between the government-held airport and the rest of the city under the control of the Autonomous Administration. 

The data of the Ministry of Health of the government, which is updated periodically on its official website, shows that the increase of flights between Damascus and Qamishli coincided with an increase in coronavirus infections in Syria in general and in Damascus in particular.

Syrian Arab news agency (SANA) on June 27, reported that the Ministry of Transportation intention to operate three flights via Syrian Aviation from Damascus to Qamishli was on the occasion of Eid al-Adha festival to serve students travel back to Qamishli and celebrate the festival in their hometowns in the country’s northeast.

Beyar Muhammad, a student from Qamishli studying at University of Damascus, was on a plane that took off from Damascus on June 29. 

He said there were no precautionary measures at Damascus airport amid crumpled crowds.

"They just tested my temperature, but it was not a sufficient measure and if I was infected, it would have spread to all passengers on the plane," he told North Press.

"Like many of my colleagues, I waited for more than an hour until I was able to get a ticket, due to the suffocating congestion in the airport terminals."

The flight ticket that Beyar was traveling on had about 170 passengers on board.

 

 

NOT ALL QUARANTINED

Dozens of passengers coming from Damascus to regime-held Qamishli airport have been taken to quarantine by security and health staff of Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) before being allowed to enter the AANES areas.
Until April, there have been no reported cases of coronavirus in the region.

During the previous curfew imposed by AANES last March there was a lot of talk about the attempts of some travelers to evade testing procedures and quarantine that medical teams were carrying out on the road to the airport and before travelers entered the city of Qamishli.

However, Health Board was criticized by local activists for what they described as lax procedures on the airport road.

“Only 20 out of 400 passengers have undergone a medical test when they came out from the government-held airport heading to the autonomous administration-held city,” Juan Mohammad, a university student said,

“What about the others? Where did they go?” he asked. 

Rojen Ahmed, a staff member from the Health Board in North and East Syria in Qamishli, said airport staff and those affiliated with the Syrian government used to smuggle travelers in exchange for money.

"At that time when the administration imposed a total lockdown and obligatory quarantine on the passengers, our Asayish [security forces] arrested some of the airport employees’ helping in smuggling travelers from govern-ment held area to our areas," she added.

Few months ago, the Health Board announced that travelers’ infiltration from quarantine centers and the lack of quarantine centers prevented travelers from being quarantined, so the autonomous administration authorities asked travelers to adhere to home quarantine.

 

DOCUMENTED CASES

According to Rojen Ahmed of Health Boardshe said AANES asked the Syrian government security at the airport for coordination to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but the government forces refused the ambulances of the autonomous administration to enter the airport to conduct tests for the passengers. 

 

The document shows the result of a PCR test of an infected person on June 12, which proves that he was infected after he underwent tests of the Health Authority Board of AANES.

This proves that there were many passengers infected while coming from Damascus to Qamishli. 

On 23 June, AANES announced 4 coronavirus cases.

Since then the infections increased, amounted to 171 infections so far, while officials in the Health Board expected an explosion in the number of infections at the end of this month. 

(Reporting by Hoshang Hassan and Mohammed Kheir Ahmed; Editing by Hisham Arafat)

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