ARSAL/TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Using intimidation and force, armed groups in Lebanon are delaying or preventing the movement of wounded patients for sectarian and political motives, medical professionals say, leading to further injuries and, in some cases, death.
Arsal, a small Sunni town in the Bekaa Valley that staunchly supports the Syrian opposition and hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has only limited medical facilities. This means patients with acute injuries often require transport to hospitals elsewhere in the predominantly Shiite region – but the road can be dangerous.
Two weeks ago, a young Syrian man with a bullet wound in his leg was being transferred by ambulance from Arsal to Rashaya. The young man’s mother, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Star that her son was unconscious when the ambulance was stopped by armed men in neighboring Labweh, a largely Shiite area where Hezbollah enjoys wide support and the Syrian rebels are far from popular.
“They checked the ambulance and tried to wake him up. They thought he was faking being unconscious,” she said. “They beat him on his head with the butt of a rifle several times.”
“They were shouting and cursing at him.”
Her son remained in a coma for several days, his condition markedly worse than when he set out in the ambulance, she said, and although he has since regained consciousness, he suffers from memory loss and is still recovering from the attack.
When asked, she said she did not know who was responsible for attacking her son.
It’s a familiar story to Dr. Kassem al-Zein, a Syrian national who runs a field clinic in Arsal and said several of his patients had been beaten at an informal checkpoint in the Labweh area before reaching the hospital.
While patients with manifest injuries are mostly allowed to pass without much hassle, Zein said, those who appeared only lightly wounded or had internal injuries were often harassed at the checkpoint.
“All the patients who can move can be subject to a severe beating ... at the Labweh checkpoint,” he said.
The informal checkpoint was erected by Hezbollah a few months ago on the sole road leading into Arsal, an isolated border town high up in the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, and is policed by armed members of the party. The men, who sometimes wear Hezbollah armbands, wave cars to the side of the road, tersely open trunks and question passengers they deem suspicious.
Another doctor in Arsal, who wished to remain anonymous, said his patients often told him similar stories. “Several of the patients said that some of the armed people shouted at them, and others said they were beaten. They [the gunmen] say, ‘Where is the injury? I want to see the injury.’”
The doctor added that while his work was strictly humanitarian, he tried not to leave Arsal often for fear of being stopped at the Labweh checkpoint and harassed – or worse.
Zein said the checkpoint had taken its toll, particularly on patients who required specialist doctors such as optometrists.
“There are several patients who have eye injuries or diseases who have suffered some complications, and in some cases even lost their sight, because we couldn’t transport them to better hospitals,” he said. “One patient who initially needed vein reconstruction surgery was beaten and now needs eye surgery too.”
George Kettaneh, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross, said he was aware of the reports and admitted that sometimes there were occasional “problems” on the road from Arsal. However, he downplayed the altercations, describing them as “discussions between young people,” and denied that they were caused by politics or sectarian differences.
Arsal has received an enormous influx of Syrians fleeing the war, including a number of combatants. Some – though not all – of the patients being transferred from Arsal were wounded while fighting against the Syrian regime and its ally Hezbollah. Tensions in the area were stoked recently when Labweh was targeted by rocket attacks that residents blame on Sunni extremists in Arsal, as well as the border town’s reported role as a passage for explosive-rigged cars that have been behind a spate of suicide attacks targeting areas associated with Hezbollah.
But the issue of obstructing basic health care for sectarian reasons is not limited to Arsal.
Patients in the overwhelmingly Alawite Tripoli neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen in North Lebanon have suffered a similar fate during recent clashes in Tripoli, with Sunni gunmen sniping at ambulances in an attempt to stall them, according to health professionals in the area.
During clashes in the last few months, it has proven extremely difficult to evacuate critical patients from Jabal Mohsen. When someone from the neighborhood is injured and needs to be evacuated, the Lebanese Red Cross is required to call the operating militia leaders in the area and ask them to stop shooting so they can retrieve the patient.
“You have to make many calls to different militias,” said Roger Bafitos, who works with a Red Cross ambulance crew. “It takes time. ... Sometimes there are complications.”
According to Noureddine Eid, the managing director of a clinic in Jabal Mohsen, some patients died needlessly because medical staff were unable to get them to a hospital in time.
“You have the feeling that you’re standing above a patient who is dying, and there is nothing you can do for him,” Eid said.
“If an Alawite gets killed, it’s easier than getting shot. Because if he dies, it’s over. But if he gets hit in a critical place, he needs treatment and he needs to get out [of Jabal Mohsen].”
As in Arsal, recent deployments by the Lebanese Army have created a fragile calm in Jabal Mohsen, allowing residents to move with somewhat more freedom than before.
Still, Eid said he was concerned that tensions would rise once again.
“The presidential election ... could bring all the fights again,” he sighed.