Rebels, rubble and refugees

2013-04-23 10:16

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UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay said this week that the death toll in Syria’s bloody civil war was probably now approaching 70 000. Le Roux Schoeman and Felix Dlangamandla try to make sense of the devastation

The blurb in the normally chirpy Lonely Planet travel guide should prepare you for a trip to Syria.

“At the time of writing, you can’t go; if you can, you shouldn’t,” the 2012 Middle East edition informs the reader.

Now, take a map and run your finger over the rather rough neighbourhood of the Syrian border: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey... with 41 Israeli settlements and ­civilian land-use sites in the ­Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Then Google the man running this authoritarian regime, President Bashar al-Assad, and take a moment to reflect on how, well, different a visit to one of the northernmost of Syria’s 14 provinces could possibly be.

Then allow some leeway and ­remember to pack sensible shoes.

That is more or less what a group of 45 mostly South African, highly trained and experienced medical volunteers did before embarking, just more than a week ago, on a mission to do their bit in Syria.

The mission was the brainchild of Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of Gift of the Givers.

Sooliman is a doctor who feels spiritually called to offer his medical services in disaster areas at home and further afield, in places like Haiti and Somalia.

The destination was a new hospital in the city of Darkoush, a few kilometres from the Turkish border.

The team arrived with more than a ton and a half of equipment, worth R4 million.

The town is a rebel stronghold.

So, whether brandishing guns at roadblocks all along this mountainous region or being carried through the doors to the trauma room, the military types were mostly anti-Al-Assad fighters – not government soldiers.

But Sooliman and Ahmed Ghandour, the chief cardiac surgeon, were both at pains to explain they would treat anyone here.

It’s a 40-bed hospital. It’s 25 paces from the front door to the operating theatre at the back of the building.

As electricity in Darkoush comes and goes (mostly the latter), an outside generator is on constant duty, along with guards sporting AK-47s, scruffy clothes and severe beards.

The medical team consists of everyone from a wound specialist and theatre nurses to a gynecologist and orthopedic surgeon.

While the journalists had some time to explore the area, the medics had their jobs cut out for them.

This is a war zone: a region where schools now house refugees and where some men start carrying guns before they start shaving – and Syrian men start shaving pretty early in life, by the look of them.

Darkoush is between 20km and 30km from the frontline fighting between rebels uniting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and government forces.

Inside the hospital, the sound of explosions in nearby towns and villages sporadically competes with the din from the patient waiting area, the sound of motorbike engines in the street and the muezzin’s calls to prayer.

On April 17, the Syrian national day, a six-year-old boy called Mohamed Zafer Bajee died here as doctors tried in vain to save him. He had accidentally been shot in the chest by his father.

Violent resistance against the ­Al-Assad government erupted in early 2011.

A year later, according to the UN, at least 9 000 people had been killed in the government crackdown.

Some fight

Abu Mahmoed Ghader is wearing a black tracksuit, flip-flops with socks, a small pistol and a cap. He is a spokesperson for a group of fighters who call themselves Wolves of the Jungle.

They have a smart logo on the bakkies that carry their anti-aircraft guns and an impressive selection of guns on the stoep of their headquarters, 10 minutes outside Darkoush.

The Wolves support the ideals of the more well-known Free Syrian Army.

“We know who you are against – Al-Assad – but what are you for?” we ask him.

Our interpreter explains: “He said that his main aim is to end the war, but by killing Bashar al-Assad.”

Ghader points down to his gun when he says they will then put all their weapons back into the army ... the new Syrian army, the interpreter explains, once Al-Assad is defeated.

Some flee

It’s as good a day as any for illegal border crossings into southern Turkey.

Farmers till the fields with New Holland tractors and the pale brown Asi River laps at its muddy banks.

There’s not a border post in sight.

From the Turkish side, we see four men crossing the river on a raft, using a rope tied from bank to bank to pull themselves out of Syria – away from conflict and strife to, almost certainly, one of a number of refugee camps set up to the south of the Turkish town of Antakya.

The men have nothing with them but the clothes on their backs.

Our chat with one, in a pair of jeans and blue short-sleeve shirt, is brief.

“There were rockets and bombs (in his home village). He wants to go to Turkey,” our interpreter explains. One of the refugees angrily interrupts and the interpreter looks stunned: “They say Turkish military is coming – they have to escape from here.”

And, with that, they disappear into the undergrowth along the river bank.

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