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Syrian doctors turn to smuggling supplies as war rages on

Doctors, activists, and aid groups like Doctors Without Borders are teaming up with smugglers in Jordan to supply field hospitals for the injured in Syria's war.

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“Carrying drugs or surgical equipment in Syria is equal to carrying weapons, in the way you are treated by the security apparatus if you are caught,” he says.

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Surging demand

With huge numbers of war-wounded, as well as people with ordinary injuries or illnesses who fear arrest if they use government hospitals, the demand for under-the-counter medical care is tremendous.

That is where people like the Syrian doctor come in. He and a colleague work in Jordan collecting medical supplies provided by wealthy donors, mainly Gulf Arabs or Syrian expatriates, and arrange for them to be carried over the border to the field hospitals. Until recently, both men were treating the wounded in Syria. Then they were found out and forced to flee.

In one room of the warehouse, a box is piled high with “sandwiches” – blister packs of related drugs that have been pulled out of the packaging and wrapped in cling film, making a fist-sized bundle. More drugs and equipment cover the carpet. The doctor explains how he divides the supplies into kits for different purposes. The surgery kit is roughly the size of a backpack, stuffed with gowns, gloves, bandages, paraffin-coated burn gauze, sutures, chest catheters, syringes — enough supplies for one operation. There are even individually-sealed brushes soaked with iodine for hand cleaning. “Most of our operations are not in hospitals,” he says. "Maybe in houses, so there is no water, no alcohol.”

The anesthesiology kit is smaller: a little bag full of vials of ketamine, adrenaline, antibiotics, and other supplies. These, the doctor says, are particularly hard to get in Syria — because they are addictive drugs, only one company manufactures them, and it’s a government company. There’s another kit for bandaging wounds. The kits can be packed together, or smuggled in piece by piece, depending on what kind of transport is available.

The two doctors don't move the kits themselves and rely on the guile of others: kits can be hidden in legitimate cargo, or concealed in cars, or carried across the border at night by relatives or professional smugglers. Refugees who have entered Jordan unnoticed can be used to carry goods back. Even large pieces of medical equipment can be broken down and sent piece-by-piece, the doctors say.

Bashar Al Assad has taught us these new skills,” says one. “We haven’t had anyone come and teach us, we’ve been learning as we go along.”

The two doctors run what seems to be a particularly well-organized operation, but they are far from alone. There are plenty of people moving drugs from Jordan. Some belong to organized networks, but there are also individuals who say they will pay to send drugs to doctors or activists they know. There are groups backed by private donors, and others backed by aid organizations. MSF says it is also working to get medical supplies and equipment into Syria, but would offer little information about its methods.

Money and crisis

Some networks are run by rebel supporters who are trying to help the cause. Others are run for profit. “It’s a business,” two separate sources said.

One subject where sources gave markedly different accounts was the cost of shipping. Foucher says MSF uses a network of activists and pays nothing to send drugs across – though there may be costs borne by others. Other sources described paying smugglers, but the amounts varied. One of the two Syrian doctors says he can spend as much as half the cost of the supplies in order to get them taken over. Much of that money, he says, goes to bribes.

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