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Syrian opposition's volunteer medics keep working, despite death threats

The Syrian regime made an example of three volunteer medics by torturing and killing them. But its attempt to intimidate has only emboldened the ranks of Aleppo's opposition.

By Staff writer / July 31, 2012

Three Syrian rebels stand guard at a makeshift field hospital, as casualties mount from intense shelling on the first day of a Syrian government military offensive against rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in the rebel held district of Salaheddin in Aleppo, Syria, on July 28.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

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Aleppo, Syria

After midnight in a rebel field hospital in Aleppo, the rush of casualties eased long enough for one volunteer medic to speak his mind about the risks he and his colleagues were taking.

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"Do you know what is the punishment for doctors and nurses working here?" the Syrian asked, knowing that his answer would shock. "They burn them."

It was an extreme example of regime brutality, but one that still resonated in the halls of this makeshift frontline clinic, like the echo of artillery shells that landed throughout the neighborhood.

Three Aleppo University students, who had been helping treat demonstrators shot by Syrian security forces, were arrested at a checkpoint in mid-June. Their mutilated and charred bodies were found in a burned out car a week later.

If the regime intention was to shock, it worked – other doctors, nurses and volunteer student medics were horrified by the gruesome fate of their friends. But if the intention was to intimidate them, it backfired, they told the Monitor. The brutal punishment instead redoubled their commitment to serve.

It was a costly miscalculation for the regime. Since the killing of Basel Aslan and Musab Barad, both fourth-year medical students, and Hazem Batikh, an English literature student and medic, the protests in Aleppo have evolved into the frontline of Syria's anti-regime uprising. And those health workers, motivated partly by the loss of their friends to regime loyalists, are now working in field hospitals in swathes of the city under rebel Free Syrian Army control. 

"We can't believe that, it's unbelievable," says Abu Walid, another medical student and friend of the three men, describing his initial reaction to their deaths. "Then we swore to continue my friends' way, to protect the future Syria from Assad. He's a criminal president."

Those sentiments were voiced by a number of medical volunteers, many of them students, during a three-day visit by the Monitor to the rebel-held Aleppo enclave of Salaheddin.

"They wanted by this crime to tell us that everyone who works like this will meet the same destiny, but we are insisting on our duty more," says Hamza, the team leader of the three who were killed. "If we were afraid, the revolution would have stopped from the very beginning."

'We will kill Assad for killing him'

Amnesty International detailed the evidence of torture and described the killings of the medical workers in a June report, as "yet more evidence that Syrian government forces are prepared to commit unspeakable crimes to silence dissent."

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