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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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“The Syrian government knows perfectly well that things are getting sent over,” he says. “In every organization in Syria, there’s corruption.” Syrian Army border guards willing to turn a blind eye to smuggling in exchange for payoffs was a common refrain. Jafar, a Syrian activist living in Dera’a, who did not want his real name used, says the bribes often depend on the guy at the border. “Sometimes you might pay LS25,000 ($435) for a syringe, and sometimes LS10,000 ($175) for a whole car.”

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Once the drugs are over the border, they are passed from contact to contact until they reach the field hospitals. These can be hidden in empty houses, in basements or the back rooms of stores or warehouses, explains Rami Jarrah, a Cairo-based activist who works to get news from Syria out to media organizations. Mr. Jarrah says much of the information he brokers comes from people working in these informal clinics.

“There were field hospitals with real equipment, and there were field hospitals where they could just do minor things. … But when [the fighting] was really serious there would be a field hospital in most areas,” he says.

In the past month or so, however, the situation has changed. “The field hospitals have become much more discreet than they were before,” Jarrah says. “The government … started raiding campaigns, arrest campaigns, door-to-door campaigns, and that led them to actually find a lot of those field hospitals.”

He says he’s spoken to people who described security services breaking down doors, arresting doctors, building owners and even patients on the operating table.

Starting new hospitals, of course, requires even more supplies. One of the Syrian doctors says that smuggling the equipment to set up one field hospital can take a month, with medical devices sent in piece by piece, hidden in other cargoes. (Here, too, sources differ: Jafar says there is no medical equipment at all coming into Dera’a, only drugs. Foucher, at MSF, says their networks can send equipment to Syria, but “it has to be tiny, rapidly movable … there is a limit to what you can do.”)

And though there is no hard data, the trade seems to be growing. There is no lack of supply, sources said: there are donors, particularly in the Gulf, ready at any moment to buy huge amounts of supplies to send. And there is plenty of demand. “Recently the attacks have been harder,” Jafar says. “At first they used to shoot us, now it’s [bomb] strikes, so the need is increasing. The requests and the quantities are increasing.”

As Foucher points out, with field clinics only able to offer limited treatment, the numbers of injured people in Syria will only grow. “There is a huge number of wounded people inside,” he says.

For the moment, smugglers like the doctors with their Jordanian basement full of medicine may be their only lifeline.

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