By Monica G. Prieto (Tripoli, Lebanon) / Traslation Blanca G. Bertolaza
- Syrian activists create a private healthcare network to treat the victims of the repression in private homes
- According to Amnesty International, in government hospitals the patients are arrested, questioned and tortured even by the medical staffSome of the wounded are transferred to the north of Lebanon, where another network hospitalizes them and takes care of the expenses
The four young men lie in two rooms in one of Tripoli’s main hospitals, bright and aseptic. They all have one thing in common: they were wounded during the repression in Syria and treated in private homes by doctors and nurses because they were scared to go to a public hospital, since the regime has turned them into “military bases”, as Syrian activists and NGOs such as Avaaz and Amnesty International have reported.
The mother of one of them holds his hand with a saintly expression on her face, as if she wanted to erase the past few months from her mind. But Mohamed, her 23 year-old son, has a frowning and stubbornly sad expression. It seems as if he is still in Tall Kallah, from where he arrived with a bullet wound on his hip. The same happens to Abu Yassen, 21, wounded on both legs two weeks ago in Homs: his mind still has not been able to escape the dangerous neighborhood of Baba Amr, where eight of his friends were turned into human remains.
“Eight of us were the ones in charge of bringing supplies into the neighborhood. It was surrounded by tanks, so the only way was to get out one by one and gather food and medicine from surrounding neighborhoods”, explains this young Syrian painfully. “The only way in was through a place we call ‘the gardens’, and we tried through there. There was a helicopter gunship shooting indiscriminately, and a nail bomb fell close to me. Some of my friends were torn apart by the explosion. Six died, another one lost both legs, I was the only one who survived intact”
Intact but with three nails embedded in his head, leg and side. The thought of going to a public healthcare center did not even cross young Abu Yassen’s mind. “The ones who end up there are arrested and tortured”, he says with a slightly astonished look on his face. “I don’t remember how they took me to a field hospital, where I was for barely 10 minutes: it was a normal house, ran by two doctors and two nurses. There were wounded people and corpses on the floor. Since the Al Naas cemetery is occupied by the Army, they put the corpses in a fruit refrigerator: at night some volunteers took them to the gardens, where they buried them”.
At his side, doctor Mazen crosses his arms over his chest, nodding attentively. “We cannot trust public hospitals, because they have been turned into bases for the Security Forces”, explains the 23 year-old Syrian dentist turned surgeon’s assistant due to the circumstances. “At first 90% of patients were murdered, the rest arrested. During the stay at the hospital they are tortured. Nobody goes to the hospital anymore, people go to the clinics set up in private homes in each city”.
The manager of one of Syria’s main NGOs explains to Periodismo Humano that it is a clandestine medical network that already includes more than 100 doctors exclusively dedicated to these clinics all over the country. They say that Medical School students, especially those in Homs –one of the cities hardest hit by the regime’s repression- have quit their lessons to dedicate themselves to saving fellow citizens. Doctor Mazen closed his dental clinic in Banyas –his hometown- just one week after its opening, when the shots fired by the Security Forces against protesters changed his priorities radically.
“We set up an improvised clinic in a private home. It had three rooms and a living room. We got hold of a generator to get around the power cuts and we set up the operating room”, he explains. “We were two doctors and a few nurses. The problem was that we had no blood, so we encouraged neighbors to donate to have supplies. Once we had eight wounded people in the living room, along with six corpses, three of whom were women”.
The neighbors of Banyas did not keep their clinic for too long. A military raid on May 7th targeted the home and they were all arrested, including those wounded: “Two of them died because of the lack of medical attention”. The young dentist was arrested: he was in prison for two months, before being released and traveling to Lebanon, where he has become head of the Local Coordination Committees (who organize the protests in Syria) medical department in the country.
Mazen’s mission is to treat the wounded refugees that arrive in Lebanon, which he estimates to be a little fewer than one hundred. “Some die on the way”, he adds. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the busiest illegal route between Syria and Lebanon, the Wadi Khaled mountains, a rocky mountain area in plain view of the snipers stationed in Syria’s border villages. He checks those most severely injured in public hospitals after raising the money for medical expenses; he secretly settles the ones with less serious injuries in private homes in Tripoli, Sunni stronghold in Lebanon, and in the town of Haba, closer to the border, where he currently has six people. He keeps two in his own home: one of them gets up with effort to greet the visitors with his arm in a sling; the other one, Hassan, is better off physically, but has psychological wounds that will take very long to heal.
Hassan, 30 years-old, was the only one of the six injured people we interviewed that went through a public health center, the Banyas Central Hospital, after being arrested on May 7th. “I had a bullet wound on my hip and they checked me into the Al Yamaia Clinic, but the next day the Army came in and accused us of being deserters: they arrested all of us, including the five wounded ones”. Sitting on a pillow on the floor, in a cold room of the neighborhood of Abu Samra, he starts to tremble as he advances through his story. “Already at the hospital entrance, as they took us out of the ambulances, they started to beat us: the shabiha, the doctors, the nurses, the members of the Intelligence Service… They chained us to our beds. For four days we received no medical treatment, food or water. They did not let us sleep, they beat us when we closed our eyes. The nurses stuck needles in us. Once I begged a man in uniform to give me something to drink: he unzipped his pants and urinated on my face”.
The alleged abuse by doctors would be hard to believe were it not for the report published by Amnesty International last October, where it repeated the allegations made by Syrian physicians against their own colleagues, accusing them of abusing and torturing injured protesters. According to the report, government hospitals are detention and torture centers for the injured. “The Syrian authorities have turned hospitals and healthcare staff into instruments of repression in their effort to squash the massive protests”, reads the report. Among the accusations collected by the organization are “physical and verbal abuse and in some cases denial of assistance”. The report features harrowing statements such as the one a doctor in the Homs Military Hospital allegedly made to a 28 year-old young man in May. “I won’t clean your wound. I will wait until your foot rots away to cut it off”.
Hassan was transferred to Al Bassel Hospital in Tartus, which is under military control, according to Amnesty International. “I had not been able to wash myself since the day I was injured, and I smelt of dry blood, mud, sweat and dirt”, he remembers, trembling. “A doctor said to me ‘why do you smell like the gutter?’ But even he was surprised about the way we were being treated. They refused to give us medication or to inspect our wounds. They took me to Military Security for questioning, but I passed out from the pain from my wound every time I stood up”. Hassan tells how 17 days later he was driven to Damascus and thrown in a cell with 40 other people, all of them completely naked. “They hit us all the time with rods and power cords. Once, during the interrogation, when they had me on my knees in front of the agent he put a boiling kettle on my head”. Two months and several prisons later, his name was included in a regime amnesty and he was released. It was not long before he fled Syria.
“Public hospitals are butcher shops”, says doctor Mazen bitterly. The dentist explains that in Syria it is illegal for doctors to give assistance outside public hospitals, which complicates things for those specialists who live up to their Hippocratic Oath and treat patients regardless of their sect or political beliefs. According to him, one of his physician friends had both hands broken after it was found out that he treated injured protesters in private homes.
The four refugees admitted at the Tripoli Hospital went through these clandestine clinics. “I was in a protest in Tall Kallah and a group of shabiha [civil militia that supports Bashar Assad] opened fire indiscriminately”, explains Mohammed, electrician, slowly, his mother listening closely to every word. “They took me to a private home where they gave me emergency assistance. I bled a lot, I lost consciousness: when I woke up I was here”, he says looking around the modest room. “The Tall Kallah hospital is taken by the shabiha, going there would not have crossed our minds”, he adds.
Abu Yasen lost count of through how many private homes he dragged his injuries. “I think I was in eight different homes because they moved me from one to another every day”, he musters. The reason is the military raids looking for activists, unharmed or injured, that end up taking apart the clandestine network of Syrian clinics and forces them to reinstall them on new homes.
Two young men lay a couple of rooms away. Khaled, 21, wounded at a protest along with 15 of his friends, and Hussein, with nine bullet wounds on his body. Two women burst into the room, looking for their son and brother. They have just arrived and their eyes are full of tears. The patient explains softly that he has difficulty expressing himself and asks for the interview to be short. “I was at a protest in Baba Amr when several cars full of shabiha charged against us. We tried to escape but they shot us”. As chance would have it, it was Abu Yassen who had to drag his wounded body to the clandestine clinic: it happened the day before he himself was injured by a nail bomb. “I spent six days at the first field hospital, a private home where they lay me down on a bed and extracted part of the bullets. They also cut out part of my stomach. They told me that the surgery took more than four hours”, Hussein continues. He admits that he does not know how he got to neighboring Lebanon, but his unexpected driver is at his side.
“It is very hard”, points out Khaled, the one responsible for the illegal trip, a man in his thirties dressed in a blue sweat suit and a cheerful expression. He describes himself as a member of the Free Syrian Army, the formation of deserters that stands up to Bashar Assad’s regime, and he is the one in charge of transporting injured people from Homs, Hama and Tall Kallah, the towns closest to the Lebanese border. “Sometimes we bring them on motorcycles, but in the end we have to cross the border over the mountains, carrying the stretcher around the mines planted by the Army”, explains Khaled, moving around the injured with confidence, who look at him with sincere affection.
“Between 50 and 100 wounded people have been evacuated to Lebanon since I arrived”, Mazen confesses. Khaled estimates about 22 people transferred since his mission began: two died along the way. Sometimes, he tells us, he hangs them over his back, held with belts; the ones who are more seriously injured are passed on wheelchairs or even on stretchers. Hussein, with his nine bullet holes and his destroyed stomach, was one of the hardest ones. “We put him on a car but we were attacked too”, he narrates. “We had to take him out between four people: the blanket we wrapped him in was dripping blood”.
“When the injuries are not serious, the trip usually takes about an hour and a half, but with cases like Hussein and Abu Yunes it took me more than six hours”, says Khaled. Doctor Mazen thinks that it is a miracle that Hussein was saved, but conflicts are full of miracles, and he knows it well in spite of his age. “I still remember a man with a bullet on his head, it took them five hours to cross the border. And he is still alive”.