Medicos labour in Syria's war zone

Doctors treat Abu Mahmoud in the makeshift hospital.
Doctors treat Abu Mahmoud in the makeshift hospital.

THE deep boom of rocket fire shook the makeshift field hospital in the Syrian mountain town of Salma. Soon after, the bloodied residents of a nearby village arrived, covered in dust and sobbing with pain.

Abu Mahmoud was the first to descend the stairs into the hospital, a ghostly figure dressed only in white undershorts stained with blood from the shrapnel wounds that sliced into his thin legs.

The 73-year-old was sitting in his lounge room in the village of Dureen with his son and daughter when four rockets fired from a nearby Syrian army post landed on his house.

They all but destroyed the building, leaving the three trapped inside and crying for help.

Mr Mahmoud's son lay in the bed next to him in the hospital, bleeding from a head wound and a piece of shrapnel stuck too deep in his chest for the doctors to retrieve.

His daughter writhed in pain as doctors stitched and dressed the deep slashes in her calves.

''These people are civilians, they were not hurting anyone,'' said the hospital's chief clinician, paediatric surgeon Dr Habib. ''This is what Assad is doing to his people.''

The rocket fire continues as the doctors and their assistants stitch and dress wounds, administer intravenous painkillers and search for other injuries, while worried relatives look on. One mortar lands particularly close - the medics flinch and look up just for a second - and then go back to their stitching and probing.

Salma is the capital of the Jabal al Akrad region, a lush farming oasis that sits 800 metres above sea level. It lies at the heart of 30 Sunni villages and a handful of Alawite towns, bordered to the south and west by Alawite strongholds.

More than 200 rockets fell on Salma on Wednesday night, and the bombardment continued into Thursday and Friday. ''It is the same every day,'' Dr Habib said. ''Tank shelling, rockets and mortars.''

Under the control of the Free Syrian Army for two months, Salma and its surrounding villages remain contested ground - forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad can no longer enter so they have set up camp in three Alawite towns just two to three kilometres away and they bombard the villages continuously.

''Jabal al Akrad is within Latakia province and the regime believes Latakia should be only Alawite, so to have a hole of resistance within this province is a thorn in Assad's side,'' said Free Syrian Army regional commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Abu Ahmad from his new base in the mountains.

He repeated the mantra of most of those fighting to overthrow the Assad regime: send more weapons.

''They have tanks, jets, helicopters and the ability to fire rockets from many kilometres away, we have just light to medium weapons with a very short range.

''We need anti-tank missiles and other heavy weapons to make any more progress … ''

Still, the Colonel predicted the revolution would be won by the end of the month. ''As I understand, 75 per cent of Aleppo is now free [and under rebel control] … things are good,'' he said optimistically.

One of the rebels under the Colonel's command is the cousin of the Syrian Ministry of Interior, Mohammed Al-Shaar, who was mistakenly believed to have been killed in the bomb attack in Damascus last month that left four of Assad's senior personnel dead.

Al-Shaar's cousin's presence as a senior figure in this rebel command indicates even the family members of those high up in the regime are divided about the future of Syria, which is widely viewed to have descended into a civil war 17 months into its uprising.

A handwritten sign on the wall of the makeshift field hospital established in June by a handful of volunteer surgeons and surgical assistants reads: ''We believe the human being is the centre of the universe … [we are] offering medical care to the whole people involved on both sides of the conflict and delivering them to a safer place to receive medical care, regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity or religion.''

But with no water, no electricity and limited diesel to run their small generator, the clinic is up against it, relying on donations from the staff themselves, as well as a regular supply of medications and equipment smuggled from Turkey and elsewhere in Syria.

It has already been bombed three times and moved twice to safer ground, and Dr Habib says they are ready to evacuate at a moment's notice.

Back in the village of Dureen, which its residents say is bombed ''day and night'', the family of Abu Mahmoud say they will stay the distance and outlive the Assad regime.

''We have our farmland here, our cows to look after - why should we leave?''

This story Medicos labour in Syria's war zone first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.