x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syria's wounded saved by rebel doctors without frontiers

Brave volunteer medics endure routine gunfire as they shuttle casualties from Syria's war to the border area of Turkey.

A Syrian family from Marea wait at the Bab Al Salameh border crossing with hopes of entering a Turkish refugee camp. Doctors cross the border into Syria several times a month to take in medical supplies and bring out the wounded.
A Syrian family from Marea wait at the Bab Al Salameh border crossing with hopes of entering a Turkish refugee camp. Doctors cross the border into Syria several times a month to take in medical supplies and bring out the wounded.

ONCUPINAR, Turkey // It is a different kind of house call. The doctor has been shuttling between Turkey and Syria the past five months, across badland international borders in nondescript civilian vehicles with Syrian licence plates.

"Being shot at is routine," Dr Aymen Rayez said matter-of-factly.

"They shoot at everything that moves," he added, talking about Syrian government troops.

When Dr Rayez hears the sound of low-flying government aircraft, he hides his car under olive trees. If there are no problems, he can be in Aleppo and back in a few hours.

He is one of about 10 doctors who make the trip back several times a month to rebel strongholds in Syria from this Turkish refugee camp of 12,000 that sits on the border of the two countries.

He says doctors have made it their mission to bring in medical supplies and to bring out the wounded - and sometimes the dead - regardless of the danger.

"Only yesterday, we had a man with a bullet to his stomach and one with a shot to the head, both hit by snipers in Aleppo," Dr Rayez said this week.

"One of the men died, but the other one is in intensive care in a Turkish hospital." Dr Rayez is 30, slightly built. He worked in an Aleppo-area hospital before fleeing the violence five months ago.

Dr Rayez said he is one cog in an unofficial support network of activists that lend support to the rebellion against the Bashar Al Assad government in the bloody 17-month-old conflict.

"Everybody has a role to play, whether he is a doctor, a fighter or a cook," he said, describing his work as part of a "jihad", or holy struggle, against Mr Al Assad.

He estimated that hundreds of activists, with various missions, were making the same journey between Turkey and Syria.

Missions by Dr Rayez and the other physicians are triggered by calls from medics in makeshift rebel hospitals in Syria. To avoid Syrian government efforts to shut down communication systems, the network uses a Turkish mobile phone grid, which extends about 25 kilometres into Syria.

Once the wounded are collected, they are taken back to Turkey where they are transported to the state hospital in nearby Kilis, the capital of the border province where Oncupinar lies, or to hospitals in Gaziantep, about 60km further to the north.

Dr Rayez said hundreds of mostly Sunni Muslim rebel fighters had been brought out of Syria that way.

Some of the wounded are eager to get straight back into Syria.

Ussama Gapsun, 34, from the Aleppo area and a butcher by trade, limped to join some friends for a cigarette.

"I will go back as soon as possible and rejoin the fight, if they need me," he said.

Dr Rayez said the doctors in Oncupinar were not alone. A similar team of Syrian doctors was active from another Turkish refugee camp in Hatay province, to the south-west of Oncupinar.

The two groups of doctors were in close contact and sometimes coordinated missions. But he said Turkish hospitals were not prepared for the onslaught of war wounded.

He did not want that remark to sound like he was criticising Turkish efforts to help the refugees or the wounded from Syria.

"Turkey is helping, but the Europeans and the Arabs could do much more. They could at least enforce a no-fly zone," he said.

"Russia and Iran provide help for Al Assad, but no one helps the opposition."

The doctor dismissed angrily concerns in the international community that a sectarian conflict could break out in Syria.

"There is no war of religion," he said. "Of course, we also help Alawites," members of a Muslim minority in Syria that includes much of the country's ruling elite. "I have even treated wounded government soldiers."

tseibert@thenational.ae