By Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Siria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
With a kefiyeh (checkered headscarf) wrapped around his forehead to prevent sweat from getting in the way of his work, Abu Berri treats a clean bullet wound. He introduces a catheter with serum to clean up the injury as a woman’s shrieks echo in the humble room that serves as operating room, stabilization unit and even morgue of the Baba Amr field hospital. This neighborhood, and the entire city of Homs, has been under military siege for months, and under the snipers’ indiscriminate shots, like the ones that tear ripped cries from the patient.
“Don’t take pictures of me, they will kill me!”, she repeats when she sees a camera man as she receives emergency medical treatment, clinging to the hand of a relative who looks at her helplessly. Next to the stretcher, which is laid out on the floor, Leila translates whispering while she prepares a shot of local anesthesia that she quickly administers to her leg. “She had not left her house in three days, but she needed to go buy diapers. A sniper shot her on her doorstep”, she explains.
Meanwhile, Sleiman brings a new victim out of a van that is covered in blood on the inside. He puts tourniquets on the injured and digs in the drawers looking for the right medicine. He is not a nurse: he is Abu Berri’s cousin and Abu Sleiman’s son, a stout man in charge of cleaning and embalming the corpses.
Sleiman is a deserted soldier who decided to put down his weapons at the beginning of the revolution to save lives, instead of taking them in the name of the dictatorship. He is also a vital to the rescue of injured people, to medical assistance, to cleaning up blood and to any other task the hospital may require.
Laila is not a nurse either, but a lab technician. Abu Berri is the only doctor dealing with war injuries in the neighborhood, which has a population of 28,000, but he never went to Medical School. Before the revolution he was a mere construction worker, who installed tiled floors and carpets, but when the protest began, he talked to a doctor friend.
“I asked him to let me go with him for a week, in the operating room, treating injuries… He, and the experience of this war, have taught me everything I know”, he says as he prepares an improvised cast to immobilize the patient’s leg. He fears that it is broken, but he does not have an X-ray machine to confirm it. “Now I take care of everything. Yesterday we received 100 victims of the bombings. But god is with me. That is the only thing that can explain that only 10 of them died in these rooms”, he says, referring to last Saturday, when heavy artillery fell onto Baba Amr with all its harshness.
Along with several civilian volunteers, Laila, Sleiman, Abu Sleiman and Abu Berri are the only ones who run the Baba Amr field hospital, the biggest one in Homs. Its rooms are never empty: neighbors and friends help out in all sorts of tasks: from preparing injections and bandages that are always hanging from the walls waiting to be used, to taking the injured to the hospital.
In the two other rooms the improvised healthcare center has lay the patients who have just been stabilized; as soon as they can be moved, Sleiman and Omar drive them to their homes in the middle of the bombings. The bathtub is full of saline bags, the old storage room is now a pharmacy that they calculate could only have assisted the hospital for three more days if the impregnable siege that was put on the neighborhood last Thursday had not been lightened with the arrival of the Arab observers, allowing the entrance of supplies and medicine, even if it was counterfeit.
Only a miracle can explain what goes on in these rooms. “We have not slept in three days, and we eat when we can”, explains Abu Berri. The meals and the scarce periods of sleep take place in the same room where two injured victims lay: at the moment this article was written, a woman that had been performed a tracheotomy by the improvised doctor, and a man with his stomach ripped open by grapeshot and a leg riddled by nails. This type of ammunition is banned and indiscriminate, because when it goes off it fires nails in every direction, causing many victims and a serious health weakening.
In the middle of the conversation, several wounded people arrive at the emergency room. A man with his face and arm burned by an explosion, another one who had been shot in the leg and a third one with a sniper’s bullet that came in through his shoulder and came out through his side. Two women with their respective children, four and six years old, both wounded the day before during an attack of the rural area where they live, and old woman from the same place who witnessed her daughter’s death in the same attack…
Nothing compared to the day before, when the Syrian mortars and snipers did their best attacking the population of Homs. “Out of the hundred or so wounded people that came in, 15 were children. A lot of them women. Two of them died”, continues Leila. “When we saw the situation we were shocked, we were overwhelmed. Since there is no place to put them, they were on the floor, we did not even have room to work”. The next day, last Tuesday, the staff went through the same anxiety: 23 people died of gunshots and bombings; the number of wounded was well over a hundred.
A few days ago, a pharmacist who used to perform as a doctor also came to help out in the clinic, fearing that the number of casualties would be very high due to the harshness of the attacks. “His name was Mohamed al Awad. He used a halt in the attacks to take medicine to a family that had been moved a few hours before. When he left his home, a sniper shot him in the chest. His friend tried to recover his body, but the shots made it impossible. He was out on the street for half an hour, until they could bring him in”, Leila explains as one of the volunteers who dedicate their lives to the hospital shows a video on her cell phone of Al Awad’s body already on the hospital stretcher, in the hall. Their eyes well up with tears.
That Saturday, between seven in the morning and ten in the evening, the injured kept coming in non-stop. Monday was even worse, when the floor of the hospital was permanently full of blood. It is not the first time Abu Berri goes through a similar experience; in the previous offensive, in early November, the worst day he saw 70 wounded people. “Whenever there was a halt in the arrival of victims I went to the mosque across the street to pray. I did it with my bloody shoes under by arms because I knew that at any moment I would hear a car brake and I would have to race out to treat injured people”.
Abu Berri has been living at the field hospital for two months. Before that, he took the hospital into his own home. “For three months, before setting up this center, last October, my relatives were my nurses. I took the victims there and when I finished with the emergency treatment they took care of them, washed the, fed them… We treated no less than 2,000 people”. That is where he, his uncle and his cousins got the experience.
According to the regime’s propaganda, the civilians that succumb to their mortars and bullets are terrorists, and young Abu Berri is, of course, wanted by the Security Forces. “In November, when the Army came into Baba Amr, they found the clinic. They destroyed everything. But they did not find him”, tells the lab technician. Abu Berri remembers how his mother was arrested for fifteen days, his uncle for two months: all of it just to find him. They were freed, and now they work with him at the field hospital.
The paramedic acts with impressive skill. He introduces catheters in wounds, cleans them up, extracts bullet shreds –he keeps dozens of bullets taken out in the last two days in a jar- and uses a pair of forceps to take a needle with suture thread from a hermetically sealed envelope to stitch wounds. Around him, the volunteers help him like professionals. In spite of the fact that, like the 29 year old construction worker, the experience of military aggression is their only source of knowledge.
“How much longer can we go on like this?”, Leila complains. “We need saline, antibiotics, anesthesia, blood…”, lists Abu Berri, who explains his system to gather supplies. “When the attacks decrease, the neighbors come down voluntarily to donate blood. We analyze a sample to determine their blood type and write down their names and numbers. When we run out of blood, I call them so they donate again”. If the hospital is overwhelmed by the number of wounded people, the mosques ask for donors through the speaker system.
The medical staff’s imagination makes up for the necessities. “Once we did not have catheters to clean up the blood form the wounds. We cut narguile tubes (water pipes) and sterilized them. That worked for a few days”. Tracheotomies and amputations are performed with a knife, but they are so successful that people from other neighborhoods come to Abu Berri’s field hospital, which has become the most prestigious in Homs. During the worst days of the Ramadan offensive, he remembers a surgery that took him three hours. “A woman had her stomach torn open. Four days later the siege loosened up and a doctor came in from Homs to help. He was amazed by the surgery”.
During the first months of the repression, when they ran out of bandages “we used shreds of clothes”, explains Leila. The moments of calm during the attacks are used to gather supplies. During this time, Abu Berri has had to treat all kinds of wounds, except when they affect the patient’s head or chest. “Then there is nothing we can do, we have to send them to public hospitals”, he explains, despite the risk of the patients being arrested by the Security Forces that are in control of them, according to the population and confirmed by an Amnesty International report.
The hospital does not keep figures, but in November they decided to make an exception with the children. “We have counted more than a hundred dead kids”, says Abu Berri. Three private cars are now ambulances , driven beneath the bullets by Sleiman and Omar, and Abu Berri uses a motorbike to go around town when the attacks stop to change bandages and watch over the patients’ evolution. In this period he has delivered five babies, four of which needed a Caesarean section. The last one was on Christmas Eve. “80 people have died at my hands for now. But while some lives go, others come”, says the doctor with a bitter smile. “I just do what I can. But I’m well aware that every life I save is a miracle”.
One day after this article was written, Baba Amr suffered one of the worst attacks since the start of the revolution. The injured and the corpses piled up at the field hospital; Abu Berri, Laila and other volunteers multiplied while Sleiman left new victims in the stretchers before leaving in his van to look for more people in need. Half an hour after leaving the hospital for the last time, he came back with the help of two people: he had been shot in the leg. While they lay him down on the stretcher, he gestured to me trying to say “It’s nothing”.
The paramedic did his best, and a few hours later Hussein came back out to look for injured people, this time in the adjacent neighborhood of Inshaat. A new bullet pierced through his stomach. All Abu Berri could do was stabilize him before sending him to a public hospital. “It was a bad injury, it is a very complicated surgery”, explained Abu Berri with bleary eyes. “He will most likely not survive”. The nurses cried hidden in the infirmary. “Before coming out, he told us not to cry, that death was a natural thing and that he was willing to die”, moaned Leila. An hour later his death was confirmed. The hospital of miracles could not save his life.