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Syrian Rebels Recover Behind the Front Lines - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Wounded Syria rebels rest at a rehabilitation center in Amman, Jordan. Source: Hannah Lucinda Smith

Wounded Syria rebels rest at a rehabilitation center in Amman, Jordan (Hannah Lucinda Smith)

AMMAN, Asharq Al-Awsat—On his final day in Baba Amr, Dr Ahmad al-Terkawi took off his t-shirt and used it as a bandage. In his makeshift hospital in the pulverized district of Homs there was no medicine, and no equipment. “We were doing operations without anesthetic,” he says.

Today Baba Amr is a ghost town and Dr Ahmad’s hospital is gone. So too is his home, and his efforts in Homs have earned him a place on the Syrian regime’s most wanted list. Six months ago, knowing that the security forces were closing in, he gave a government official 250,000 lira to take his name off the watch list for one hour. That window was his chance to escape into Jordan. “Even as I was crossing the border I was wondering whether I could trust him,” he remembers, “but what else was I going to do?”

Dr Ahmad new workplace is a crowded office in Amman’s Islamic Hospital. He can only speak in bursts; every minute or so a new patient comes in proffering a prescription to be signed, and his two phones ring relentlessly. He is one of just two doctors on a ward set up by the Qatari Red Crescent to treat Syrians wounded in the civil war. There are over sixty patients here, most the unlucky recipients of shrapnel wounds, others the victims of government snipers. Dr Ahmad may have left Syria, but here in Amman he is still part of the war.

Another man sitting in the small office, Bassam Hamza, seems healthy and cheerful, but his right leg emits a hard hollow sound as he taps it.

“I was the leader of the Ka’ab al Ahbar Brigade in Homs,” he says. “We have 62 fighters, all from the Bab Drab neighborhood. Every hour of every day we launch attacks on regime soldiers. They have tanks and mortars and fighter jets, and we have only Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenades. But they avoid confronting us on the ground. They are afraid, not brave.”

Last autumn Bassam Hamza was on the front line of his brigade as they pushed forward into a government–held area of Homs. They surprised 30 government troops and a firefight erupted. “I was shot four times in the leg,” he says. “I carried on fighting for ten minutes after I was shot but then the bleeding became too much and I had to stop. At first I thought it was just a normal wound, but after three days it was still hot and I was in serious pain.”

With nowhere to go for treatment in Homs, Bassam Hamza had to be smuggled out of the country. “It took six days, and I had to travel underground to get out of Syria,” he says. “I was in pain but I wasn’t afraid. I carried a gun and a grenade in case we came across any regime troops.”

He made it out, and then to the hospital in Amman, but the damage to his leg was catastrophic. Nearly two months after that fire fight it was amputated at the hip, but he smiles and tells me that he feels lucky. “I have only lost a leg. Some people are sacrificing their lives. It will probably take me a year to walk normally again but this is the price of freedom.”

Bassam Hamza is one of dozens of young men under Dr Ahmad’s care who have given their limbs, sight, or mobility to the revolution. The physician’s other place of work is a ten-minute car journey away, in West Amman: the Al-Fursan Centre, a house that he and a team of volunteers have turned into a rehabilitation centre for injured fighters from the Free Syrian Army. It’s an operation run on a shoestring. The staff are volunteers and the costs are covered by donations, from Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Behind the building’s blank frontage patients laugh raucously with their doctors as they take faltering steps from their beds to the physiotherapy machines. “I love the revolution and I love my friends,” says Dr Ahmad. “Here I am surrounded by both.”

This lightness of mood sits strangely with the severity of the patients’ injuries. Mousa, a 21 year old defector from the Syrian Army, took shrapnel to the brain as he fought alongside his new comrades in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Dera’a. When he came to the center he was paralyzed, but he proudly demonstrates how he can now stand up and walk by himself. Adham, from Homs, was shot in the neck and the bullet pierced his lung and spinal cord. “I play on his emotions,” says Dr Ahmad. “I tell him that when he has recovered we’ll go back to Homs together and work for the revolution. It inspires him. When he came here a year ago he couldn’t move at all. Now he can walk about.”

But the man in the next bed is not moving like the others. Malek (not his real name) was a General in the army. When he was ordered to kill protestors at the start of the uprising he, like so many of his colleagues, disobeyed by firing into the air just above their heads. “If I’d have been caught they would have killed me,” he says. When his chance came he left and joined the rebels, but just a few months later he was shot in the spine. “He’s completely paralyzed,” Dr Ahmad tells me.

Yet Malek says his dream is to go back to Syria and join the revolution again. In the next room a young Damascene called Mohammed warms himself in front of an electric heater. Two months ago he was shot by a sniper as he smuggled guns and ammunition to the FSA. The shot hit his left hand, causing serious nerve and bone damage. “I was only helping the rebels, I hadn’t joined them,” he says. “But when I get back to Damascus I will be picking up a gun and fighting with them.”

Bassam Hamza, too, is sure that he will fight again. “This is the seventh time I’ve been injured. Once I was shot a centimeter below my heart; the regime announced that I was dead. But I just rested for three days and then carried on fighting. I talk to my brigade on Skype every day, and I miss them so much. I will fight alongside them again.”

And despite the sword hanging over his head in his homeland, and the destruction of everything he knew there, Dr Ahmad too says he can think of nothing but returning to Homs. His eyes mist over as he thinks of it. “I will go back there, I am not afraid. If Allah wants me to die then no-one can save me. But if Allah wants me to live, then no-one is going to kill me.”

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist who has worked on a number of high-profile investigations for Channel 4 and the BBC. Her recent work has seen her gain access to inner city gangs, sex workers and the British far right. She has traveled to Kosovo, Syria and Brazil to report on human rights issues. She lives in London.

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