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Scenes from Syria's battleground: Tear gas, gunfire and fear

A Syrian living in Turkey shouts slogans during a protest against the government of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul August 19, 2011.


The following post is part of a new series that brings a fresh perspective to global news from our team of foreign correspondents

Syria's doctors and paramedics have learned to prepare for the worst every Friday. The uprising has a grim pattern: every week, people gather in local mosques for prayers, one of the few public gatherings that authorities cannot abolish. Afterward, they pour into the streets, somebody shouts anti-regime slogans, gunfire erupts. The casualties reported so far on Friday include one killed in Hama and seven injured in Homs, adding to the 2,700 estimated by the United Nations to have been killed since mid-March.

The injured end up in hospitals and secret field clinics stretched far beyond their capacity. During research for a recent story in The Globe and Mail about the plight of Syrian women, an activist who calls herself Rose Alhomsi translated an interview with a doctor and a paramedic in Homs, a city that has become a flashpoint in the conflict.

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Ms. Alhomsi says that her friend Mohamed recorded the interview face-to-face with the medical staffers at a secret location in the city. As with most information from Syria in recent months, the authenticity of this interview cannot be independently verified. In other words, there's no way of confirming that this report comes from a doctor and paramedic, and not an activist's imagination. Syria's state-controlled media have accused activists of inventing stories and fabricating evidence. As the Syrian government strictly limits journalists' access, however, news transmitted out of the country by activists has become an important barometer of the situation.

What are the difficulties you face?

Paramedic: "The reality is that Homs today faces a situation of fear that it has never witnessed before, as the tanks fill the streets. Gunfire is heard continuously in all parts of Homs. After protests in Syria increased and have now become daily, the number of casualties has risen and a lot of the time emergency treatment of injured people or even reaching them is difficult due to the continuous gunfire. Therefore, a lot of the time we cannot complete our humanitarian duty."

Doctor: "Sometimes there are only metres between us and the injured, but we cannot rush them to hospital because any person who tries to come near the casualties is targeted by state security. There is a difficulty in providing medication and medical supplies, and there is a difficulty in transferring casualties to hospital due to fear of being arrested. If someone is caught and accused of 'helping casualties,' they will be chased and arrested and may be executed. Many men are being detained till today for being found possessing medicines."

What type of injuries you have seen?

Paramedic: "The injuries range from suffocation with tear gas, to bullet wounds. Most gunshot [wounds]are found near the top parts of the body, and these are most dangerous."

Doctor: "We usually film and document all injuries on video. For example, a martyr was a victim of a tank running over him in Baba Amr and another was a victim of a missile in Bab Sba; also many injuries are due to snipers aiming for the head."

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How do the authorities deal with your work?

Paramedic: "When we receive news of an injury or martyr or any humanitarian crisis we need to take permission before leaving to aid these people."

Doctor: "As my colleague has just said, any person who tries to do their job – a humanitarian responsibility – is risking their life, and we have many colleagues who are now arrested because of this."

We have heard about injured people being arrested, do you have any details on this?

Paramedic: "We are not allowed to check all detention centres."

Doctor: "Any words I say to you are documented with video, dates, names and places. The detainees, from the moment they are arrested, are subject to the worst torture a mind can imagine, also humiliation using beating and swearing. One of the detainees was returned dead in the shape of sitting on a chair, his body was full of burn marks showing he was probably subjected to electrocution until he died and was kept in a seated position for a while. Another martyr was returned to his parents with his chest ripped open and organs all taken. ... A recent one is of Khaled Qateesh, whose body was shot 15 times all documented with video."

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Do you document all injuries, numbers of martyrs, their names and how they were killed?

Doctor: "Yes, we do document martyrs and we now have a website where we document as many details of the martyr we can."

While carrying out your humanitarian job, have you come across or taken any injured army soldiers or security officers?

Paramedic: We, as humanitarian aid workers, help anyone injured irrelevant of their job or political opinion.

Doctor: [laughs briefly]"Yes, my brother, we have rushed some army soldiers to hospital who have been shot in the back after their defection. Unfortunately it is their brothers in the army or security forces that shoot them."

There have been reports of arrests for those found carrying medicines, or even buying medicines in large amounts. What information do you have about this?

Paramedic: "I have no information regarding this matter."

Doctor: "Yes, this is true, any person who is found to possess, or have in his home, any medical equipment – even if it is just sterilizer – they are arrested. Now it has become difficult, if not impossible, to get basic medical necessities. Blood banks are currently run by the regime, exclusively. So this has all been very difficult."

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