Syria doctors turn smugglers, risking lives to save lives
Doctors and opposition activists have been risking their lives to save Syrian lives, resorting to smuggling from neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey to access critical medical supplies for their makeshift hospitals.
Sakr, 30, a doctor from Homs – which has been bombarded by the Syrian military – is one of the people in charge of a smuggling operation in the al-Qaa region on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
"We had to resort to this kind of smuggling mission, we have no other choice, because the medical supplies are urgently needed inside rebel-held areas, such as Homs, on the outskirts of Damascus and now Aleppo," Sakr told dpa in the eastern Lebanese town of Arsaal.
Each such operation typically begins at midnight, and is usually aided by Lebanese smugglers more used to dealing in weapons. The supplies are taken in on foot, or sometimes on donkeys.
"The walk from al-Qaa takes almost one hour as far as a safe house inside Syrian territory. The medical supplies are loaded onto trucks and taken to Homs. Then they are distributed to other areas," Sakr said.
It can often take four days to get materials into Syria. Doctors in restive areas under siege need anaesthetics, disinfectants and blood.
Those working in the underground medical network cannot access blood as the central blood bank is controlled by the Defence Ministry, which is the only blood supplier in the country.
"You can be detained or shot at by Syrian soldiers if spotted, because for the regime we are smugglers on the same level as gun-runners," Sakr said.
Afraid for his family's safety, Sakr would not reveal his real name. Fear is pervasive in dissident areas, and medical workers told Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) in northern Idlib that being "caught with a patient is worse than being caught with a weapon."
A two-person MSF team that crossed into Idlib via Turkey in March found that even when medics had access to supplies, they were so terrorised that they refused to perform surgery for fear of reprisals, and only offered quick first aid.
MSF has for months being seeking authorization to aid the wounded in Syria. But since the uprising began in March 2011, President Bashar al-Assad's regime has banned international humanitarian aid groups from operating in the country, except for the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose movements are constrained by the violence.
Syrians send lists of medical supplies to activists based in Lebanon, who collect them from foreign organizations - Sakr would not name them. They also come from Syrian expatriates or activists sometimes buy them from local pharmacies.
These are then smuggled across the Lebanese and Turkish borders into Syria.
"I cannot lie - we are being helped by Lebanese smugglers who know all the illegal crossings into Syria," Sakr said. "Inside Syria, we have our secret ways to make sure the medical supplies reach the rebels and makeshift hospitals."
He said the rising number of casualties had made "doctors like me risk their lives and make trips like this across the borders to make sure all the necessary medical supplies are transferred in good condition to areas inside Syria."
The task, which he described as "a mission impossible," was carried out by a team of 12 from the Lebanese side, he said.
"Activists, doctors, members of the Free Syrian Army and Lebanese smugglers protect us and guide our way."
Lebanese smuggler Burkan told dpa: "I am doing this knowing that these supplies will help save some lives in Syria. Of course, I am being paid for this mission, but I am taking half of what I usually take, when I smuggle weapons."
But the Syrian doctor said that despite their best efforts and dangerous trips, the smugglers cannot meet all the needs of the hundreds wounded in daily attacks.
"Medicine is being used as a weapon of persecution," MSF president Marie-Pierre Allie said in February. "In Syria today, wounded patients and doctors are pursued and risk torture and arrest at the hands of security services."
Doctors told MSF, which has also collected testimonies from patients, that security forces destroy mobile hospitals and arrest and torture those who treat the wounded.
The group said the possession of medicines and basic material such as gauze is considered a crime.
With the violence showing no sign of abating and an estimated death toll of 17 000 and rising, according to the opposition, doctors like Sakr have few other options.
He said: "This is one of those moments where we have to risk our lives to save innocent lives in any way we can."