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.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
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.

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.

"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."

Even before the rebels took root in Aleppo – Syria's most populous city, northern commercial hub, and in the past largely pro-regime – the government "intensified its hunt for the wounded and for those who provide life-saving emergency treatment to them" across the country, Amnesty said. Such regime violations were part of an "increasingly entrenched pattern of crimes against humanity."

Abu Walid, who wore a blue T-shirt and shorts in the heat of the field hospital, said the three men had been helping patients in Salaheddin on June 17. They left for home around midnight and were stopped at a checkpoint along the way. Medical instruments were found in the car.

When Mr. Aslan's aunt called her nephew's mobile phone a couple hours later, it was answered by man who said, "Don't ask about them, we will teach them."

The three were in the hands of Air Force Intelligence, and not found for a week. They were only recognizable by pieces of clothing, like a belt, or body shape. Amnesty reported that their identity cards had been left beside the corpses.

"I was surprised by the killing of him, I cried," says Abu Bakr, a dental student and volunteer who considered Aslan his best friend. He spoke as a vehicle arrived, bringing more casualties from government shelling.

"Many times, when I think of Aslan, I cry. We will kill Assad for killing him," he says, his eyes tearing up. "They were good men, only helping people, not for money but only for God. He was going to families to help them, feed them. And they did it in the shadows. They didn't want the spotlight."

A temporary, but crucial, show of support

These volunteers may toil behind the scenes, but in Syria's bloody civil war, few things are more important than their work keeping wounded fighters and civilians alive.

When government forces launched their assault to reclaim Salaheddin on July 28, the intensity of the bombardment brought scores of bleeding rebels and civilians alike into this makeshift hospital.

Medical workers donated their own blood to the cause; the brutal message from the regime sent by the killing of their three colleagues was set aside as life-saving work commenced.

"This field hospital does nothing for bullet wounds, just stops bleeding and sews them up," says Abu Rakan, a paramedic at the field hospital.

"But it gives the FSA the idea that there is something behind them, support," says Abu Rakan. "I think the most important thing you give to them is this emotional support. But it's only a temporary solution, not a permanent solution."

Scott Peterson left the Salaheddin district of Aleppo late on the afternoon of July 29 after three days in the enclave, when this story was reported. Follow him on Twitter.

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