Antonio Pampliega, AFP
Last updated: 14 March, 2012

Wounded and tortured Syrians carried to freedom

Four men move deftly and carefully across a field, their silhouettes outlined by the light of a full moon, bearing a stretcher.

Five lives are at stake as they hasten to carry to safety in nearby Turkey a man shot during a demonstration in the Syrian city of Hama against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We don’t have ambulances, and even if we did we couldn’t use them to cross the border because Assad’s troops would capture us,” says Saadallah, one of the leaders of network working to get the most seriously injured out of the country.

After a rest, the men take up the march again. No one talks as they approach the border.

“We always move by night to avoid being detected by the army. The journey is very slow.”

Naturally, their routes are a secret but, as the crow flies, it’s about 50 kilometres (30 miles) to Turkey from Kansafra, the staging post for many of these journeys.

“On average, it can take us two days to cross the border, but it always depends on the surveillance and checkpoints we encounter along the way,” Saadallah says.

Anti-regime protests broke out a year ago on Wednesday, and were virtually all characterised by peaceful demonstrations calling for economic and political reforms, including greater human rights.

And despite promises of reforms, the regime’s response quickly became lethal, with troops firing on unarmed demonstrators.

Since then, an estimated 8,500 people have been killed and tens of thousands wounded. Against that backdrop, Saadallah’s teams have managed to get 184 wounded people out of the country.

“We calculate that about 10 people have died while we were taking them out; the journey is laboriously slow, and some of them can’t hold on.”

“Syrian hospitals are not safe for the wounded,” Saadallah says.

“The doctors and nurses torture their patients. They jab them with needles or burn them with cigarettes to extract a confession.

“We have transported people with major amputations because of the (damage done) by the ammunition used by loyalist troops, as well as people who have been brutally tortured, even having their eyes gouged out.”

Yami, who was wounded during a demonstration in the coastal city of Latakia, recalls his own cousin, who was sliced with a knife all over his body and then left to bleed to death.

In his own case, Yami said he was beaten and electrocuted by his captors after his friends took him to hospital, “and the hospital’s own staff denounced me to the Mukhabarat (secret police) so that they could interrogate me.”

“I moved from hospital to hospital several times until I finally managed to cross the border,” says Yami, who can barely move his left leg because of the damage done to muscles and nerves by a bullet.

Hassan al-Arrah, aged 33, is lying in a field hospital in Kansafra, where doctors have successfully removed a bullet from his abdomen.

He covers his face as he speaks, fearful that if his photo is published his family could pay the price.

“My friends got me out of the hospital in Hama. It was full of Mukhabarat, and they arrested us or tortured us with the help of the nurses. That’s why I had to flee, to save my life.”

The “hospital” in Kansafra, in the mountainous Jabal Al-Zawiyah region, was built in 1998. It was nothing more than a local clinic until the conflict in Syria turned it into a field hospital. It is from here that many of the wounded set out on their dangerous journey to Turkey.

With one operating theatre, one treatment room and six bedrooms, two doctors and a half dozen nurses, the dismal place resembles more a veterinary clinic than a hospital.

One of the doctors, who covers his face and refused to reveal his name, says “more than 20 patients have died here. Many times they bring in a lot of wounded at once, and we just don’t have the means. Some of them die as they wait.”

The situation is dire, the doctor says, with enough anaesthetics for “perhaps two or three more operations.”

Medicines are scarce, and it is the hospital staff themselves who risk their lives, evading loyalist troops as they scour surrounding villages for stocks. What they do manage to find is smuggled in from Turkey.

“We don’t even have a refrigerator, so when we need to do a blood transfusion, we do it on the fly, taking the blood straight from the donor and giving it to the patient.

Across the border, at a hospital in Antakya, Doctor Hassan Nayer, a Syrian who fled his country in the 1980s and doesn’t dare go home, speaks of the horrible nature of the wounds he has to treat.

“The most common cases we get are from explosive bullets,” he says, explaining that about 80 percent of the cases he receives are a result of them.

“We can’t treat many of the wounds because of the severe damage done, and we end up having to amputate. I have never in my life seen ammunition like this and such terrible injuries.”

At the moment, Dr Nayer has five patients, two of them with their spinal cords destroyed by exploding rounds.

“They have been condemned to spend the rest of their lives in wheelchairs,” he says, as he introduces 20-year-old Samir Abdu, wounded during demonstrations in the northwestern city of Idlib.

Samir has a wound in his buttocks the size of a golf ball; the bullet severed his spinal cord.

Lying next to him is another youth, Mustafa Aspiro. With three bullet wounds in his chest and one in his shoulder, he is paralysed from the waist down.

“I was at a demonstration when the army opened fire on us. They hit me and I fell to the ground. We were demonstrating peacefully,” he laments.

Sitting beside him is his brother Sarif, who travelled from Syria to be with him.

“If I could, I would join the (rebel) Syrian Free Army this very minute,” Sarif says.

“I am ready to fight,” he adds emphatically as he looks at his brother, who will never walk again.