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WEDNESDAY, 23 APR 2014
06:47 PM Beirut time
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Syrian war wounded find relief in Lebanon
An injured Syrian man lies on a hospital bed in a clinic in Kamed al-Loz. (The Daily Star/Samya Kullab)
An injured Syrian man lies on a hospital bed in a clinic in Kamed al-Loz. (The Daily Star/Samya Kullab)
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KAMED AL-LOZ, Lebanon: The jagged fault lines of Ammar Mohammad’s wounds have nearly healed. Sitting outside his shelter in a refugee gathering in the West Bekaa, he lifts up his shirt to reveal the extent of his injuries and the thin scar tissue which now covers them. Mohammad, who says he was hit by an RPG while fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces alongside rebels last spring, is among the hundreds of Syrian war wounded receiving treatment in Lebanon.

Anyone who was injured with a weapon during armed conflict is considered war wounded, said ICRC spokesperson Samar al-Kadi, regardless of whether they are a combatant or a civilian, though a sizeable number of those receiving treatment fall under the former category.

Kadi says the ICRC has treated over 700 war wounded in the Bekaa Valley since 2012.

“In June and July, after the Qusair battles, the numbers really skyrocketed,” she said.

“The more wounded [there are] inside Syria, the more cases we get coming to Lebanon.”

The international organization is just one of several tending to the needs of those wounded in Syria who make it over the border.

A 20-bed clinic run by Lebanese organization Ighatheyya has treated 135 wounded Syrians since it opened five months ago in Kamed al-Loz in Western Bekaa.

Some, such as 50-year-old Bassam, received initial treatment in Syria, but required additional care in Lebanon due to insufficient staff, facilities and supplies back home.

Bassam said he was receiving treatment for a leg wound at a hospital in Syria when the building was struck by an RPG launched by regime forces. While fleeing to Lebanon, his already mangled limb deteriorated and an infection set in his liver due to a lack of proper medical care.

A doctor working at a nearby Bekaa Valley hospital, who asked to remain anonymous, said that this was common.

“The majority of cases are infections related to wounds,” he said. “Most of these patients were not operated on in specialized centers [while in Syria] ... [but] mostly in tents or in homes.”

Some of the patients in the Kamed al-Loz clinic are indisputably civilians. Osama, 14, pulls back a blanket to reveal the stub of his right arm, amputated after an RPG attack that doctors say killed his father.

Others, like Nasser, proudly profess to be mujahedeen.

Wrapped in a fleece blanket emblazoned with the seal of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he says he was injured in Qusair.

“My intestines were ruptured after I was hit by a bullet,” he said. “I had surgery in Syria but it had to be redone.”

Some of the war wounded being treated in Lebanon are foreign fighters, said the Bekaa Valley doctor: “We have seen men from Gulf countries, with long beards, and ... Libyans as well who are fighting.”

“We never ask them about their nationality,” he added, “But some tell us anyway.”

In Baalbek, the ICRC has treated both pro- and anti-regime fighters, the doctor disclosed: “When we know the patients are from opposing sides we separate them by placing them on different floors ... We make sure they don’t know the other is there.”

Many patients are lawfully retrieved from the border by the Lebanese Red Cross, who then take them to a number of cooperating hospitals across the Bekaa Valley for treatment. According to a well-informed source, the ICRC has contracted four hospitals, in Chtaura, Jib Jenin, Baalbek and Hermel, to care for war wounded Syrians.

After surgery patients are often referred to clinics run by other non-governmental organizations, such as Ighatheyya, who oversee the patients’ convalescence.

Amer Mohammad said after he was injured on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon last March he was carried on the back of a mule to the border and was received by the Lebanese Red Cross in Shebaa.

Some, however, such as Abdel Razzaq, admit they crossed into Lebanon illegally after being wounded. Razzaq said that three weeks after uniformed government troops cut the nerves in his hand with a sword, he illegally fled to Lebanon for treatment upon hearing about Ighatheyya’s free medical aid.

He has received two operations since arriving in Lebanon.

“Before my fingers did not move,” he said, wiggling his extremities with a thin smile.

Funded by a variety of international donors, including many Gulf-based organizations and some individuals, Ighatheyya covers the entire cost of the patients’ care.

According to hospital administrator Abu Youssef, treatments start at around $1,000 and can go up to $30,000 for complex cases such as phosphorous gas burns.

Because of increasing medical need, Ighatheyya is in the process of building a fully equipped 30-bed hospital in the border town of Arsal, where many refugees and combatants cross into Lebanon.

“The hospital is for Syrians and Lebanese, any nationality,” explained Dr. Bilal, a Syrian surgeon who will be the chief medical director of the new hospital.

“But the situation here demanded that we ... treat the wounded Syrians,” he added.

Inside the new hospital, some of the X-ray machines and oxygen tanks are still in their wooden shipping crates. Dr. Bilal shows where the operating rooms and sterilization autoclaves will be situated.

Ighatheyya says they do not bring patients across the border.

“We can only reach the borders, and Syrians come from there and bring the injured with them,” Dr. Bilal explained. However, he said the NGO had extensive contacts within Syria to help coordinate care and facilitate the crossing.

Kadi confirmed the ICRC adhered to the same policy. “We don’t do cross-border operations, [neither] the ICRC or the Red Cross,” she said.

The question of where patients typically go once treatment is complete was skirted by most health care providers, including the anonymous Bekaa Valley doctor.

“We have a protocol not to ask,” the doctor said.

Mohammed was adamant that he would return to fighting in Syria once his rehabilitation was complete. “I’ll go back when it gets warmer,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 06, 2014, on page 4.
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