Wounded from Syria finding refuge in Lebanon

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 6, 2012 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Fighters battling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad have smuggled more than 1,000 wounded Syrians to Lebanon for treatment as medical services become nearly impossible to find in areas sympathetic to the rebels.

The wounded appear to include both rebel fighters and sympathizers to their cause. The most serious cases were smuggled to Lebanon along a route that consists of a series of safe houses where the wounded can be hidden and cared for on the way to the border. Often the journey from Homs, where the Syrian military has undertaken a harsh offensive against the rebels, takes two days, even though Homs lies only 25 miles from the Lebanese border.

The escape route is part of a series of field hospitals and clinics that the rebels have set up to provide emergency care, even though supplies often amount to little more than bandages and iodine. The hospitals and clinics have been targeted regularly by the Syrian military, which continues to deny the International Committee for the Red Cross access to Baba Amr, the hardest hit area in Homs.

"We used to change our spot almost four times a day to escape from the Syrian army because we are threatened by the Syrian army and we are facing death at any time," said Abu Nizar, a doctor at a clinic outside Qusayr, a city partially held by the rebels that lies between Homs and the Lebanese border.

"Some of the patients died because the road to the hospital is very long and we are in need of medical supplies," said Abu Nizar, who used a nickname that in Arabic means "Father of Nizar." "We've seen many patients die in front of us because we can't do anything to them."

Rebels say that almost as soon as Syrian government security forces turned their weapons on the anti-Assad demonstrations that began one year ago, anyone brought to a hospital in a government-controlled area risked arrest on suspicion of being a rebel or activist. A video aired recently on British TV appears to confirm widespread allegations that Syrian government hospitals have also become torture centers.

"The hospital in Qusayr has been occupied for seven months by the Syrian army, they are doing all their army operations from there and it became a military base," Abu Nizar said.

Abu Berri, a rebel fighter and medic, ran one of the three field hospitals in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, where perhaps as many as 1,000 rebel fighters were holed up in an uneven standoff with the Syrian army before withdrawing last week after the neighborhood was subjected to a month of heavy shelling. He said demand for treatment quickly grew as peaceful demonstrations turned into armed conflict.

"I started the clinic in a room in my house, but last June I rented a house," Abu Berri said. "After the shelling started, we had a minimum of five bodies every day."

Refugees who have recently fled Baba Amr say that a governing council had been set up about three months ago to govern the district. The council's membership included those running the clinics as well as members of the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized rebel force made up of army defectors and volunteers who have taken up arms against Assad's government. Also represented were people in charge of sanitation and those in charge of assisting foreign journalists in covering Syria's war from rebel-held areas.

Abu Berri survived rocket strikes that hit his clinic last month, but a week ago he met the same fate as many of his patients, when a sniper's bullet shattered his left ankle. He left Syria by the same route that had carried so many other wounded.

He told his story from a Lebanese hospital that is crowded with other wounded rebels and sympathizers. They agreed to be interviewed if the city where the hospital is located was not disclosed.

The wounded, housed in adjacent hospital rooms, told stories of the destruction in Homs. They said the Syrian army had executed people from at least three families in the area surrounding Homs in the past week and was blocking the Red Cross from entering Baba Amr in order to cover up what had happened there. Refugees from the area say all men over 14 are being arrested by the army; their fates unknown.

"Our house was shelled and completely destroyed," said the imam of a mosque in Baba Amr. "The Syrian army is burning bodies in their houses. We could smell the bodies burning, there was the smell of burning hair."

The imam, who was shot in the leg while escaping from the neighborhood, asked to remain anonymous. He said he sent his wife out of the city 25 days ago and had had no contact with her since.

"I stayed because I was handing out aid to families in Baba Amr," he said.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)>e,?

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