Miracle quadruplets born in hell on earth
Exclusive: In a freezing room in a forgotten Syrian city, four tiny babies lie swaddled against the cold.
Little girls Farah, Ataa, Sharoq and their brother Abdullah - rare, naturally-conceived quadruplets - were born on December 31 in Deir ez Zor, a city destroyed in the eight-year Syrian war.
The babies live in a single room with their mother Elham Ali and their older sister Marah, 18 months old. Marah's twin sister has already died.
Ali, 33, has no home of her own, no money, no chance of earning an income.
The room has no heating, no furniture and no running water. Outside, the street is in ruins, houses reduced to rubble by the bombs and air strikes. Stinking rubbish piles up high in the street.
It's no place to raise a family.
But that's what Ali is doing, day by difficult day.
"Sometimes the babies are crying all at the same time,'' Ali told News Corp Australia.
"It is very hard. I had a Caesarean (delivery) and had to lay 60 days in my bed without moving.''
The miraculous birth of the quadruplets, and their survival in the hardest of circumstances, is a rare patch of sunlight shining on the otherwise bleak landscape of Deir ez Zor.
The city of 200,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria was under siege for more than three years, and 80 per cent of its houses destroyed. Its population halved as those who could escape fled.
Ali's house was among those reduced to a pile of stones. It had been taken over by Islamic State when she and her husband fled to the countryside, and eventually destroyed when the Syrian Army regained control of Deir ez Zor.
She survives now thanks to the goodwill of her brother and sister-in-law, who made repairs to their home in the ruined city, and moved their family into just one room so Ali could have the second room.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent gives her medicine and baby formula once a month. The donations are literally lifesaving for her hungry babies, as Ali's anxiety and stress means she has no milk of her own.
"Before the crisis my husband had a factory but in the crisis they stole everything,'' she said.
She had to take out a loan to pay for the Caesarean delivery of her babies. She has no way of paying it back.
"I borrowed some items before I had the babies. I bought some items and sold them.''
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent runs a free health clinic in the town for people in need like Ali, and the workers there describe her as a "national treasure''.
But it's hard to imagine a more precarious existence. She bleed for months after the birth. Two of the babies have bellybutton hernias, made worse by their constant crying from hunger, and the coughs they have developed from the cold. The formula she has been given is not enough and she must supplement it.
She does not have a pram, so couldn't carry all her babies to safety if she needed to.
Her much-older husband has gone to live in the country and can send only about $25 every few months to help out. The conditions are too basic for Ali to raise the babies in the rural area, so she came back to Deir ez Zor because she had nowhere else to go.
She is just one of more than 13 million people who were displaced by the war in Syria, creating one of the world's greatest humanitarian disasters.
Australian Paula Fitzgerald is the Syrian head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which is running an appeal to raise money for the people of Syria.
"I'd hazard a guess that every family in Syria has been affected by this crisis in one way or another,'' Fitzgerald, from Melbourne, said.
"This might be grieving for a lost loved one, supporting a family member with a disability as a result of the crisis, and lost homes, possessions, livelihoods and displacements.
"The impact of these circumstances is incalculable.''
Deir ez Zor, more than 500km northeast from the capital Damascus, is difficult to reach and largely unknown or forgotten by the international community.
From July 2014 to September 2017, more than 16,000 families who had not been able to escape earlier were trapped there - starving, desperate, at daily risk of death from the mortars, or from malnutrition and disease.
All through the siege, the tiny band of volunteers and staff with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent stayed at their post.
At the height of the crisis, the World Food Program flew planes over the city and dropped in emergency supplies of food and medicine. Collecting it required the Red Crescent workers to make a dangerous dash to the drop zone, under fire from Islamic State, to collect the food, loading it into cars or onto their one small truck.
Red Crescent field co-ordinator Anas Ashwai braved the Islamic State fighters 308 times to collect the food, driving Red Crescent's little white truck into town to distribute the emergency supplies.
"Of course when I took the drops I saw DAESH (Islamic State) and they saw me,'' Ashwai told News Corp Australia.
"One of our employees here was shot by DAESH. A volunteer was killed when he was hit by a food drop.
"Whenever I would go out of my house I didn't know if I would come back or not.
"But I gained experience on how to deal with it here. I know every person in Deir ez Zor. I know what each family need, and everything about the family.''
Like most Red Crescent volunteers, Ashwai wasn't far from starving himself. He lost 20kg during the siege.
"I would eat anything,'' he said.
Ashwai, 33, and his colleagues would unload the food at a makeshift distribution centre in the city, where families would come to collect it.
It was a hazardous journey, and Islamic State would fire mortars at the crowds as they gathered to collect oil, rice, sugar and salt.
"It was very dangerous,''Ashwai said.
"DAESH knew where the centre was and would shoot mortars at it.
"The families were very scared.''
The Red Crescent also manned the only ambulances still operating in town, and would carry the wounded and dead when the mortars struck.
Later, when the petrol ran out and the ambulances couldn't operate, Ashwai would drive the little white truck to collect the victims.
One day he loaded 30 people onto the truck. Some were alive. Others were dead.
"The priority were the alive people,'' he said.
"Also we put other people into their (body) bags and gave them to their families.''
When the bridges across the Euphrates River were blown up, the Red Crescent volunteers commandeered a small boat, and rowed the injured across the river to the army and government hospitals.
Ashwai said there were now 26,000 families living back in Deir ez Zor, many of them in what he calls the "destroyed city.''
"There's a difference between the newest (recently returned) families and the oldest families,'' he said.
The families who had only just returned to their ruined homes had come back to nothing, and needed mattresses, furniture, lights, water and working toilets.
Families who had made it through the siege with their houses mainly intact needed clothes and shoes, and school supplies for their children.
"The priority now for all the families is rebuilding their houses,'' Ashwai said.
"People are living in the destroyed houses without anything. They live with nothing, in the street, because they have nothing else.
"People here live on donations, God's help and the other people's help.''
The Red Crescent volunteers and staff are all local community members. Many sent their families to safety during the siege while they stayed to help. As well as the man killed in the food drop, three others were left with permanent disabilities after being shot and attacked while on duty.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent still runs a relief centre, health clinic and first aid operations centre in Deir ez Zor - with first aid being the first responders similar to paramedics, and providing ambulances to the entire city.
They also provide psychological support to the traumatised population, and clean water and sanitation. That involves setting up water tanks on street corners so people can have safe drinking water. Longer-term, the Red Crescent is rebuilding the water supply across the country, and now supplies water to 80 per cent of the Syrian population.
Deir ez Zor Red Crescent director Mazen Hamde said the city had "suffered a lot'' even before the siege began.
After the siege was broken in September 2017, the "city started from zero.''
"No water for seven days. No electricity,'' he said.
"After the people came back, the city was broken. They needed furniture. There was no medicine.
"Most of the people here were eating water and bread. There was no food. Now the situation is getting better.''
Hamde said 16 schools remained open during the siege. Now there were 40 primary, secondary and high school open in Deir ez Zor.
During the siege, there were just three health facilities - the Red Crescent clinic, and two hospitals, one run by the Syrian army and one by the government. Now there are 15.
Red Crescent has boosted its numbers in Deir ez Zor from 100 during the siege to 350 people.
While they still hand out food parcels and medicines, they are turning their attention to setting people up for the long-term - tackling disease, helping create income streams, and trying to improve general health and life expectancy.
"People are returning from rural areas where they have been living in appalling poverty and unhygienic conditions, and were bringing back diseases,'' Hamde said.
"Children have not been vaccinated.''
The health clinic is currently battling an outbreak of leishmaniasis - a disease caused by sandfly bites which causes skin ulcers and attacks internal organs.
Ali takes her babies one at a time to the clinic, where they line up with dozens of others for free health check-ups and medicines.
She prays for help in raising her babies, and hopes that the sons from her husband's first marriage might be able to contribute when they are older. In the meantime, she waits anxiously for the baby formula delivered by the Red Crescent staff.
Fitzgerald said it was "hard to imagine Syria without the Syrian Arab Red Crescent''.
"I don't know what would have happened if SARC hadn't been there,'' she said.
"They are daily saving lives and supporting people through the worst circumstances possible.
"And it comes at a high price, with 66 Red Crescent workers losing their lives in the conflict, in the provision of service, on duty.
"SARC has delivered food to the hungry, provided emergency health care to the dying and wounded and water to 80 per cent of households in the country.
"Now they're also looking for ways to help people recover their lives and this work will go on for years. It's incredible.''
To support the work of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, donate via www.redcross.org.au/syria