Syria’s ‘secret doctors’ risk their own lives

Damascus, Syria (CNN) — Hands twisting anxiously, the young doctor says: “I am always scared, everyone is scared.”

For his own safety we are not identifying him. He is terrified that the Syrian regime will detain, torture, or even kill him. Still he persists and says it’s worth the risk. Its even worth the risk of talking to CNN he insists, because he believes the world needs to know.

He is the founder of an underground illegal network of medics, who call themselves the “Damascus Doctors”. They established a Facebook page, their intent not only to save lives, but also the doctor says, to expose the regime’s crimes.

They set up secret, hidden clinics in neighborhoods where demonstrations take place, constantly changing the specific location. Even he, beforehand, doesn’t know where the clinic will be that day. They cannot afford to be compromised.

The network, the doctor says, is made up of around 60 medical professionals, with different roles. Some provide on-the-ground care, others help to provide instruments and medicines, some have private clinics that the wounded are at times taken to, when it’s deemed to be safe.

“People refuse to go to government hospitals because they will be arrested and if they die we cannot take their body.” He explains. Families, he claims can only collect the body of their loved ones after signing a document saying they were killed by armed gangs.

The Syrian government has consistently maintained that it does not target peaceful demonstrations, blaming the violence on armed gangs who infiltrated the demonstrators, with the intent to set up an Al Qaeda style Islamic caliphate in Syria.

At the Damascus general hospital we spoke with Dr. Adib Mahmoud, the director, who said that the demonstrators’ fears are unfounded.

“We accept all cases without regard as to how the injuries were sustained or where it happened” He said.

And he insisted that the claim that family members had to sign false documents was baseless.

At the hospital we met a man who said he was shot in the leg when he accidentally stumbled into an anti-government demonstration — he doesn’t know by who. He was initially treated at one of these secret clinics, but the wound didn’t heal.

“Yes, I was initially afraid to come to a government hospital because of what I had heard” He tells us. “But I have had no problems.”

Still many are unwilling to take the risk, pointing to other cases where they claim anti-government demonstrators were prevented from having treatment, kept cuffed to beds, beaten, detained, or simply disappeared.

And so they turn to the doctors’ clandestine network of medics for help and the field hospitals at various locations disseminated by word of mouth through the community.

We initially met the doctor at an anti-government demonstration after we broke away from our official escorts. He took us to the “field clinic” they set up that day, nothing more than a tiny room. Their supplies, rudimentary at best — a single oxygen tank, bandages, scalpels, needles and other basic equipment.

Many people have bled before his eyes he claims, including children. He was helpless to save them.

“We spend all of our life to help people, and it’s so hurtful to see people dying and we cannot do anything.”

I met up with the doctor again a few days later, in secret, after careful coordination and planning to avoid being tailed.

He wanted me to see some of the patients treated by his network frustrated and angered, he said, by the government’s statement that anti-government demonstrators would face no repercussions if they went to government hospitals.

I met a man shot in the thigh who said he would rather lose his leg than risk going to a government hospital, a teenager with angry and crude stitches across his back, the gash sustained he said when security forces dragged him over glass.

And I met a seventeen year old boy, a patient of the doctors.

“He was shot in the chest and it missed his spinal cord” the doctor explained. “He had blood in his lungs so we had to drain that.”

Initially the doctor didn’t think there was any nerve damage, but then he realized that the blood has collected next to the spinal cord, causing partial paralysis.

The boy is now in a wheelchair, tubes that allow him to urinate snake out of his waistband and into a plastic bag tucked next to him.

His father had sent him to run some errands one day and his son ended up accidentally in the middle of a demonstration and was shot.

His mother cries softly as we speak.

The doctor says he has witnessed a lot of blood, a lot of pain, but also a lot of hope.

“Even when I am making sutures to their (the anti government demonstrators) muscle tendon or their skin, they keep shouting for freedom, they say we want our freedom, we will keep fighting” He tells me. “I want the international community to know that we sill have hope to change this country’s future.”

Later he writes to me: “In the name of humanity, let people know that we are suffering for our freedom”.

( / 02.08.2011)

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