GlobalPost: Syria's doctors risk danger to help wounded

A woman embraces an injured Syrian boy in a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance after he was smuggled into the northern Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled for treatment, May 30, 2012.
A woman embraces an injured Syrian boy in a Lebanese Red Cross ambulance after he was smuggled into the northern Lebanese border town of Wadi Khaled for treatment, May 30, 2012.

This story originally appeared on GlobalPost in a series of articles written from inside Syria. It was written by Tracy Shelton.

(GlobalPost) JABAL AL ZAWIYA, Syria -- The pickup truck swerved around the corner as three frantic men stood on the back screaming,"Go! Go!" Bouncing painfully between their legs was a man drenched in blood.

He was one of seven injured in a series of tank blasts last week in the village of Deersonpol, in Syria's northern Idlib province. Four others were killed instantly in the attack by government security forces. Of the seven who took the harrowing route to the nearest "safe" hospital in Deir Alsharky, 12 miles of bad road away, three survived, three died and the whereabouts of the fourth remains unknown.

There were many hospitals much closer to the scene, but these were government run. The risk of execution or arrest, particularly for those arriving with battle wounds, is so high that citizens throughout the area endure these dangerous journeys every day.

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"Most of the death cases we see are because of the distance," said Dr. Mohammed, a neurosurgeon who treated the Deersonpol cases at his clinic in Deir Alsharky. "Most bleed to death along the way. Today we lost three from injuries that could be treated if we'd got to them in time."

Many doctors and patients asked to be referred to only by their first names for fear of authorities. Dr. Mohammed was no exception. After his home and his practice in Damascus were raided by authorities, he became wanted on the charge of treating injured demonstrators and members of the Free Syrian Army. He was forced to flee the city with nothing.

"The soldiers would come into the hospitals and kill and arrest patients, especially after the Friday demonstrations," he said of his work in Damascus before he fled the city in January. "Even in the intensive care units, the soldiers would come in and kill the patients in their beds or drag them into the streets. I have seen this many times."

Due to the risks, secret hospitals have sprung up across the country. Some are manned only by untrained nurses. Volunteer doctors and surgeons working in primitive conditions run others, like Dr. Mohammed's clinic. Immediately after surgery, the patients are sent to safe houses protected by the Free Syrian Army, where their condition is monitored.

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Doctors without Borders, an international nongovernmental organization, confirmed the government practice of targeting medical workers and patients in a report released earlier this month.

"We saw militarized health care facilities, meaning that access to medical care depends on which side you belong," said Brice de le Vingne, the organization's director of operations in Brussels. "Health facilities are being targeted, thus endangering patients and preventing health care workers from doing their jobs. Health facilities and pharmacies are looted and destroyed."

Dr. Mohammed said most of his equipment is donated and smuggled in from Turkey. He shows a respirator, two new surgical sets and a radio that just arrived. Medical supplies and medications are always in short supply.

For some patients, the treatment they need is simply not available in these makeshift secret clinics.

In Maarat Al-Numaan, a government checkpoint stands by the city hospital. A few blocks away in a narrow alley is the door to the secret clinic. The doctor here, Ahmed Rawin, said they are afraid to keep patient records in case of a raid. They list only those who need follow-up treatment in the safe houses in a small notebook. Dr. Ahmed told the story of one recent patient in desperate need of life support.

"We moved him to the international hospital under a fake name," he said. "Within days the soldiers came and killed him. They threw his body into the street."

Many seek treatment in Turkey, but the journey is difficult. Rowad, 22, said he just returned from surgery across the border. As a member of the Free Syrian Army, he was injured by shrapnel during a clash with government forces. Nerve damage caused him to lose feeling in his right leg. After surgery performed by Dr. Mohammed, members of the Free Syrian Army snuck him across the Turkish border for follow-up surgery.

"Most of the way we managed to go by car, but they had to carry me for about three kilometers," said Rowad, who still has no feeling in his leg, but can now walk with the help of crutches.

Dr. Mohammed said in the past week he has sent three urgent cases across to Turkey. Two died on route.