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Syrian amateur 'doctor' recounts life in Baba Amr battle clinic

March 8, 2012 |  1:30 pm

REPORTING FROM NORTHERN LEBANON -- Security is tight at the inconspicuous hospital in an area of Lebanon now home to thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in neighboring Syria.

A medical staffer steps into the elevator and punches in a code giving access to the floor where a number of wounded Syrians are being treated. Some escaped from the devastated Baba Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs.

The Baba Amr district -- which the Syrian opposition says suffered almost a month of government bombardment -- became an international symbol of resistance to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Syrian troops overran the enclave on March 1.

In one hospital room, an opposition activist who identified himself as Abu Berri was lying in a bed, an injured foot placed in a protective metal casing with long iron screws protruding from it. The injury, he said, came last month from the bullet of a Syrian government sniper in Baba Amr.

Being in an actual hospital is a dramatic change in fortune for Abu Berri, a construction worker by trade who said that for several months he served as a kind of emergency physician at a makeshift clinic in Baba Amr.

Abu Berri, with a bushy beard and long hair flowing from beneath a black-and-yellow kaffiyeh, an Arab scarf, said he ran the improvised clinic since June in a rented apartment.

Circumstances obliged him to take on the task of field doctor, said Abu Berri, who asked that his complete name and the location of the hospital in Lebanon not be disclosed for security reasons.

The 29-year-old said he had no previous medical experience, but a shortage of physicians forced him to learn on the job. He said he observed the work of volunteer doctors, eventually picking up a rudimentary knowledge of surgery.

Many patients came in bleeding heavily from gunshot and shrapnel wounds. But only infections and external injuries could be treated.

"Heart and stomach [surgery] were not possible,” Abu Berri recalled.

On an average day during last month's shelling, he said, the field clinic received about five dead bodies. The body count regularly exceeded a dozen on days of intense shelling.

Often, he said, the wounded could not be saved because of a lack of medicine, equipment and surgeons. Syrian authorities cut off medical supplies to the rebel enclave, meaning drugs and other material had to be smuggled in via Lebanon, he said.

Early last month, he said, shells struck the clinic, hilling three, injuring nine and partially destroying the facility. Nonetheless, several rooms continued to be used as treatment centers.

Then, Abu Berri said, he was shot, ending his brief medical career. His clinic had been shelled, his neighborhood bombarded and he could no longer walk. It was time to leave.

He said he arrived at the Lebanese hospital late last month, just as Baba Amr was facing its final siege. He is one of many wounded who have escaped via an elaborate smuggling network.

"The injured people left at night and were handed from team to team,” recalled Abu Berri.

Many of the injured had to be hauled on stretchers before being transferred to motorbikes and other vehicles, he said.

As he spoke from his hospital bed, Abu Berri occasionally turned to the laptop on his bedside table. There, homemade videos and photos from Baba Amr flashed on the screen.

ALSO:

Syrian rebels in Idlib bide their time

Syrian Christians worry about life after Assad

Syrian rebels, government trade blame for Homs killings

-- Alexandra Sandels

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