Exclusive: Interviews With Wounded Teenage Free Syrian Army Fighters
TRIPOLI, LEBANON – The hospital is located in a hilly and quiet area of Tripoli, far from the souk and the agitation of Lebanon’s largest northern city. There are no more than a dozen cars in the parking lot and patients can relax in the shade of a tiny park behind the building. Inside, the rooms and corridors are extremely clean and there is a real sense of calmness that not even a group of men in wheelchairs chatting by the entrance can disturb. But some of the patients here are not ordinary people, they are soldiers in the Free Syrian Army, fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the other side of the border.
Since the beginning of the armed uprising in Syria, Sunni villagers and Islamist groups have increasingly been helping those who manage to cross over into Lebanon. Given the lack of a strong Lebanese state, villages around the Wadi Khaled have organized to provide logistical help, and to smuggle goods and weapons acrosss the border into Syria. A number of private hospitals in Tripoli are charged with treating the 200 wounded that have mangaged to flee to Lebanon.
The process for treating the wounded is usually the following: A wounded fighter is dropped at the border by his comrades where he is taken by the Lebanese Red Cross to a public hospital for immediate treatment, after which he goes on to recover in a smaller hospital and finally in a rented house before crossing back to Syria. The money comes from a Lebanese refugee fund as well as from private donors from the Gulf.
Before entering the hospital, I am greeted by a Syrian named Mohammad from Banias, who is in charge of organising medical help in and out of Syria. A Masters student in political science, he was focused on pursuing a PhD in Egypt but is now a wanted man in his country facing the death penalty. Before managing to escape to Lebanon, he was organized non-violent protests.
He was jailed and beaten by the Syrian intelligence services. A photo of his legs following his arrest shows two dark red chunks with feet at the end. After being released, two of his brothers were jailed and the third went missing. Mohammad decided to flee. Despite this harrowing experience, he remaines incredibly composed. But, while discussing his future, I perceive a profound sadness.
His friend Osama is with us and is visibly shaken. He had just arrived from the embattled Homs’ Baba Amr district where he ferryed wounded civilians and providing critical assistance to families. After telling us his story, he showed us a gruesome video of his deceased uncle. The burly man has marks and bruises all over his back. His head was either cut off or his neck was broken because the footage showed up twisted at an impossible angle.
“It seems that the Syrian forces are trying to create the ‘Homs dream,’" Osama explains, “a strategy to expel all Sunnis and fill the city with Alawites, but fighting still occurs sporadically because of Free Syrian Army elements in Khaldiyeh."
As if my experience at the hospital isn't surreal enough, a teenager on a wheelchair suddenly appears and it is clear by his green, white and black knitted scarf that he has been injured protesting.
On the second floor, I find two men resting. One of them is a traumatized deserter who has not uttered a single word since his arrival; the other is an Free Syrian Army fighter with shrapnel in his left thigh. He was hit while escaping by car from Homs and cannot wait to go back and fight with his katiba (unit).
In the next room, I find Abu Hicham from Qusair, a very funny 19 year-old fighter who was shot three times in the collarbone, stomach and leg. He was motivated to take up arms because of the humiliations suffered from the regime’s forces that invaded his village and disrespected the women in his home. I then came across a man who was randomly shot twice in the foot on his way home one day.
Returning outside, I engage with Maher, the 16 year-old boy on a wheelchair. He's look young with barely any facial hair. He is paralyzed from the waist down. He was shot about ten months ago when the uprising started and has been in Tripoli for three months. There is some hope that he can travel to France for an operation that he desperately needs.
Before leaving, I ask Mohammad the medical organizer, whether he is getting support from abroad. “Riad al-Assad (the Free Syrian Army commander) is not really helping and neither are the western countries.” He confirms to me that he is in touch with intelligence operatives from the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany but that “all they seek is information on the ground and an assessment of our capabilities but never follow up with their promises of support.”
The relunctance of Western powers to interfere could now change in light of the decision by the Friends of Syria Group to allow for some form of non-military assistance to the opposition, but Mohammad is tired of having delegations of western parliamentarians ask them, “How much they need?"
“Maalesh” (it does not matter), he says, “ordinary Syrians are witnessing a level of torture and rape never seen before, they don’t care about strategies and future plans, it’s all about day to day concerns." Given the violence Syria has seen, there is no going back.
Regardless of whether the uprising succeeds, as An-Nahar journalist Mohamad Abi Samra says, one thing “is clear: This is a political coming of age for Syrians."