In Lebanon, a refuge for Syria's wounded

February 3, 2012 - 5:35 PM
Mideast Syria The Wounded

In this Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 photo, a man who identifies himself only as Abu Abdo, 29, who was injured by a mortar shell in Syria, holds an X-ray of his legs as he lies on his bed at a clinic treating Syrians injured in the uprising in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon. The man covers his face for fear of reprisal on his family by the Syrian regime. The Tripoli clinic where the man is recuperating is the first of its kind set up by Syrian exiles in Lebanon. Earlier this week, 29 Syrians were being treated there, ranging from a man with a bullet wound in the thigh to a 16-year-old girl whose wounds to her spinal cord will leave her paralyzed for the rest of her life, doctors say. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Abu Hamza was in a crowd of thousands in the Syrian border town of Qusair, shouting for President Bashar Assad to leave power, when a sniper's bullet tore through his leg and shattered the bone into 18 pieces.

Another bullet pierced his back as he tried to crawl away. A friend rushed into the street to try to drag him away but was also hit in the shoulder. Abu Hamza lay in the street for two hours until it was dark. Finally a man ran out, pulled him to a safer area, then himself fell dead, shot in the head.

Friends smuggled Abu Hamza immediately across the border into Lebanon. Now nearly two months later he is recuperating in a clinic set up by Syrian exiles in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

The 25-year-old remains defiant. The green-white-and-red anti-regime flag is pinned to the wall above his bed. "I plan to return to Syria to continue the struggle that will end with the revolution's victory or my martyrdom," he said.

His injuries, however, will mean that he will likely have a limp for life, doctors tell him. He and others at the clinic spoke to The Associated Press on condition their full names not be used, fearing retaliation.

Well over 5,000 people have been killed in the Syrian crackdown on protesters demanding Assad's ouster since the uprising began in March. But thousands more have suffered catastrophic wounds that will become a painful legacy of the country's extraordinary cries for change.

Their wounds track the changing nature of the conflict. At first, doctors saw mainly gunshot wounds, a reflection of the main type of violence — government forces firing on protesters. But in recent months, more people torn by shrapnel from mortar shells are brought to the hospital.

That's a sign of how the conflict has become more militarized as frustrated regime opponents and army defectors have armed themselves and fought back against regime forces. The troops have responded with more devastating force, shelling neighborhoods in battles with the gunmen.

Tracking exact numbers of wounded has been impossible. Many — particularly die-hard activists — are afraid to go to hospitals, where authorities can track them down for retaliation. Activists and rights groups have accused Syrian security forces of arresting wounded protesters and even the doctors who treat them.

Instead, they get treated secretly in private clinics, makeshift hospitals or homes in Syria, said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso, who estimates that more than 15,000 people have been wounded in the uprising.

"When the deaths are in the thousands, then we are talking about thousands wounded," said Hicham Hassan, a Geneva-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Several hundred over the months have made their way to the relative safety of Lebanon from Syrian towns close to the long, unmarked and largely unguarded border. The wounded are driven by colleagues to the border, then are carried across on foot to the other side. Syrian activists in Lebanon arrange for a Red Cross ambulance to pick them up to take them to hospitals.

The Tripoli clinic where Abu Hamza was recuperating is the first of its kind set up by Syrian exiles in Lebanon. Earlier this week, 29 Syrians were being treated there, ranging from a man with a bullet wound in the thigh to a 16-year-old girl whose wounds to her spinal cord will leave her paralyzed for the rest of her life, doctors say.

"In our eyes, the wounded are heroes who deserve special treatment," said Abu Omar, a Syrian doctor at the clinic.

In one bed was a 10-year-old boy, Khaled — doctors said a bullet tore through his leg as he left his house to buy bread in Qusair. He was treated in a makeshift clinic in his town before being smuggled to Tripoli.

In another was Abu Suleiman, a 30-year-old whose thigh was torn by pieces of shrapnel during an attack in late December on the Baba Amr district, a hotbed of the opposition in the central city of Homs. He showed the wounds on his leg — and the scars on his back, marks from torture he underwent when he was detained soon after the uprising began.

Since it began work in December, the Tripoli clinic has treated 148 Syrians. Its founders initially ran three makeshift clinics inside private homes in Tripoli and two nearby towns, until they decided to combine efforts. They rented a second-floor section with 33 beds in a private medical complex and have relied on donations from Syrians and sympathetic Lebanese to cover their $12,000 a week expenses, Abu Omar said.

The staff — all Syrian doctors and nurses — doesn't have facilities or equipment for surgery, or even an X-ray machine. The patients, often with no money or possessions, come here to recuperate after treatment in Lebanese hospitals.

Lebanon itself is sharply divided by the Syrian conflict. The Lebanese government is dominated by pro-Syrian parties, particularly Shiite Hezbollah, which backs the Assad regime. Even in Lebanon, where Damascus has considerable reach, Syrian opposition activists are fearful of retaliation.

Sunni-dominated Tripoli, however, is largely sympathetic to the Syrian uprising, giving exiles here a refuge. Sentiment against Assad's regime is widespread — Syrian forces and their Lebanese allies heavily bombarded the city in 1985 during Lebanon's civil war. Sunni fundamentalist groups in the area are active in helping smuggle wounded and activists across the border.

A sample of the numbers can be seen in Homs, which has seen some of the worst bloodshed of the uprising.

The private Nahda Hospital alone has treated 1,300 wounded since March, said its director, Dr. Mohsen Tarraf. Over time, he said, the wounds "are becoming far more grave," moving from gunshots to mortar shrapnel.

The regime forces see their own casualties. Between March and November, 1,819 wounded soldiers and 251 policemen, along with more than 200 civilians, were treated in the Martyr Abdul-Qader Shaqfi military hospital in Homs, said its director, Brig. Gen. Ali Assi. The facility still gets 25-50 wounded a day, he said.

Hospital numbers don't cover the unknown wounded who are treated in impromptu clinics set up in homes or basements of buildings. The clinics, usually rudimentary, are the only option for some, whether because transport in violent areas is difficult or because of fear of hospitals.

Abu Abdu, a 22-year-old who sat in a wheelchair, had his legs riddled with mortar shrapnel during shelling of Homs' Baba Amr district. He was first treated in Syria, receiving 27 liters of blood for six days before being smuggled to Tripoli.

"We will not abandon the revolution and we don't care about our wounds," he said. "We will not retreat after all what happened and after my blood got mixed with those of my Syrian brothers."

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Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue