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Doctors Risk Their Lives To Treat Syrian Protesters

Syrian security forces shot Rabih al-Zain, a 30-year-old Syrian, while he was trying to help wounded civilians in Homs, Syria. Doctors and ordinary Syrians and Lebanese are helping treat the wounded, putting their own safety at risk. (NPR)

The central Syrian city of Homs is an opposition stronghold now under siege by the Syrian army. It's also one place where Syrian doctors risk their lives to treat the wounded.

Supplying these secret clinics is also dangerous work, carried out by a network of smugglers in Lebanon who get medical equipment into Syria and transport the most seriously wounded out of the country and into neighboring Lebanon.

A sparsely furnished apartment in Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon, is the first stop on the medical smuggling route. A bedroom serves as a warehouse, stocked on a recent day with stethoscopes, bandages and bottles of plasma.

A young Syrian named Mohammed has been running this underground supply line since May. It's a lifeline for Homs, which is just 30 miles away. Surrounded by the army, under heavy shelling, some of the wounded are too afraid to go to the state hospitals inside Syria.

"We still need many things that we are not able to secure: X-rays, surgical equipment for bone surgeries, anesthesia," he says.

When asked whether these efforts are saving lives, he replies, "It's an attempt to save lives. Some we are able to save, some, we are not."

Mohammed makes arrangements by phone with a trusted crew of smugglers. The boxes are broken down into smaller packages for the hazardous journey in trucks, motorcycles, even donkeys, on border crossings that are heavily mined and patrolled. They discuss which roads will be used, where the supplies will be dropped, what's needed.

He does this work every day.

Supplies Go In, Patients Come Out

The traffic goes both ways. The makeshift clinics inside Syria can only do so much — stop the bleeding and some of the pain. The most seriously wounded, who often have multiple gunshot wounds, are smuggled out of Syria and into Lebanon.

At an underground clinic on the border between Lebanon and Syria, a doctor — who does not want his name used for security reasons — says his wife doesn't even know about the work he is doing. But when there are wounded on the Syrian side, he gets the first call.

The Lebanese doctor says it's his duty to help.

"I go to the border, I meet with the wounded person, I conduct basic first aid," he says.

Treatment often takes place in the back of his car, until he can drive to his clinic for more intensive care.

In one Lebanese farming village, families open their homes to Syrians who need long-term recovery.

A spare room serves as a hospital room for 30-year-old Rabih al-Zain. He's been here for 20 days. His shattered leg is wrapped in bandages.

Syrian security officers opened fire on demonstrators in his village near Homs, he says. When Zain tried to help the wounded, he was shot repeatedly in the leg.

In a nearby farm home, a 19-year-old Syrian army deserter props himself up on a pillow when visitors arrive. He stepped on a mine on the border a few weeks ago and lost his leg below the knee.

"I never got the chance to fight, I didn't have any weapons," he says.

The state hospital in his Syrian village has been turned into a military barracks, he says, adding "they would have killed me if I'd gone there for help."

His mother weeps when she hears him talk about the explosion that severed his leg. She crossed the border as soon as she knew he was in Lebanon.

"I am afraid," she says softly. "I have nine children. We are under a lot of pressure. I still have family inside."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Syria has allowed international observers into the country. They come from Syria's neighbors in the Arab League.

INSKEEP: And one of the places they're going is a center of violence, as Syria's government cracks down on protesters. The city of Homs is an opposition stronghold that's been under siege by the Syrian army.

WERTHEIMER: We don't know what the observers will see, but we're getting our own glimpses through the stories of those trying to help the protesters. Syrian doctors risk their lives to help the wounded. They're supported by a network of smugglers in neighboring Lebanon who get medical equipment in and get the most seriously wounded out.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING PAPER)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This sparsely furnished apartment in northern Lebanon is the first stop on the medical smuggling route.

This is the warehouse. It's in a bedroom. That's stethoscopes. These are bandages.

MOHAMMED: Bandage, yes. Amino plasma.

AMOS: Bottles of plasma.

A young Syrian named Mohammed has been running this underground supply line since May. It's a lifeline for the Syrian city of Homs, just 30 miles away. Surrounded by the army, under heavy shelling, the wounded are too afraid to go to the state hospitals.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) We still need many things that we are not able to secure: x-rays, surgical equipment for bone surgeries, anesthesia.

AMOS: Are you saving lives, do you think?

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) It's an attempt to save lives. Some we are able to save, others we are not.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RING TONE)

MOHAMMED: Hello.

AMOS: Mohammed makes arrangements with a trusted crew of smugglers. The boxes are broken down into smaller packages for the hazardous journey in trucks, motor cycles, even donkeys on border crossings that are heavily mined and patrolled.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) Which road, where he will drop it, what they need, what is the shortage, what they need to send from here.

AMOS: And do you do that every day?

MOHAMMED: Yeah. (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Every day.

MOHAMMED: Every day.

AMOS: This everyday traffic goes both ways. The makeshift clinics inside Syria can only do so much - stop the bleeding and some of the pain. The most seriously wounded - often with multiple gun-shot wounds - are smuggled into Lebanon.

This is one office of the underground clinics on the border between Lebanon and Syria. We can't say where we are. We can't even tell you the doctor's name. He says his wife doesn't even know that he's doing this. But when there are wounded on the Syrian side, he gets the first call.

This Lebanese doctor says it's his duty to help.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) I go to the border. I meet with the wounded person. I conduct basic first aid.

AMOS: Treatment is often in the back of his car, until he can drive to his clinic for more intensive care.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLOSING DOOR)

AMOS: In this Lebanese farming community, families open their homes to Syrians who need long-term recovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

AMOS: These are Syrians here?

A spare room serves as a hospital room for 30-year-old Rabih al-Zain. His shattered leg is wrapped in bandages.

RABIH AL-ZAIN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Syrian security police opened fire on demonstrations, he says, in his village near Homs. When he tried to help the wounded, he was shot repeatedly in the leg.

In a nearby farm house, a 19-year-old Syrian army deserter props himself up on a pillow when visitors arrive. He stepped on a mine on the border a few weeks ago and lost his leg below the knee.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: I never got the chance to fight. I didn't have any weapons, he says. The state hospital in his Syrian village has been turned into a military barracks, he says, adding: They would have killed me if I'd gone there for help.

His mother weeps when she hears him talk about the explosion that severed his leg. She crossed the border as soon as she heard he was in Lebanon.

I'm afraid, she says softly. I have nine children. We're under a lot of pressure. I still have family inside.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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