Ahmad* has tired eyes and seems anxious as he watches military planes flying overhead. He runs an improvised clinic in a private flat in this small town along the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
Every day for the last week he has received injured people from the nearby town of al-Qusayr, a strategically important transit point for fighters, weapons and goods from Lebanon into Syria. The town fell to Syrian government forces on 5 June, after a two-week battle with rebels who had controlled the city for more than a year.
Since the rebel defeat, inhabitants and rebel fighters in Qarah, some 40km southeast of al-Qusayr, worry the Syrian government will take back the entire area bordering Lebanon, including Qarah and its surroundings. Ahmad fears his clinic will be spotted and shelled, so every few days, he moves the injured to a new flat.
He confesses he feels overwhelmed. “I can [do] some emergency treatments, but I'm lacking medications. Most of the injured can only be treated in Lebanese hospitals.”
Evacuation of the injured from al-Qusayr is perilous. The government now controls the area and both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) say aid workers have not yet been permitted access to the town.
“We don't have information about the numbers of wounded in Qusayr, nor how many have fled to surrounding areas,” said Samar Al Qadi, spokesperson for the Lebanese Red Cross, which works with ICRC in Lebanon. “It's now [urgent] to get in. We want to distribute medical assistance to the wounded and displaced population in al-Qusayr and its surroundings. We hope to get in soon.”
During the two-year conflict in Syria, close to six million people have been displaced, either within Syria or as refugees in neighbouring countries, according to the UN. The death toll has reached nearly 93,000, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Abu Maher*, a rebel fighter who escaped from al-Qusayr to Mazara Yabroud, some 60km to the south, told IRIN last week: “The last day [of the battle] the shelling didn’t stop. There were dead people everywhere, in the sewers. We had to leave corpses there when we fled.”
According to SARC, some 35,000 people lived in al-Qusayr before the hostilities, and all but 5,000-6,000 fled during the fighting. The UN puts the figure even higher: it estimates 40,000 people fled al-Qusayr during the month of May.
Some have started to return, notably to Christian industrial quarters that remained under government control and as such were not damaged in the fighting. But many other original inhabitants of al-Qusayr remain in makeshift shelters in al-Waer, on the outskirts of Homs, in Telbiseh, and in Hasiya, according to Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations at SARC, which has distributed relief supplies to the displaced. According to the UN, residents of al-Qusayr also fled to al-Dumina and Dibeh.
A UN assessment of displaced people in Hasiya on 2 June found a “dire” humanitarian situation, including wounded children, allegedly hit by shrapnel.
Injured shun SARC, head for Lebanon
But, Erksoussi said, the injured have not sought SARC’s assistance, instead seeking help in Lebanon.
Since 7 June, the Lebanese Red Cross has transferred 130 of the most badly injured people who made it to the Lebanese border to hospitals inside Lebanon. Even then, politics are at play.
“They can't transfer them to [any] Lebanese city,” said one aid worker on condition of anonymity. “The Syrian rebels are afraid of reprisals against them inside Lebanon, so they are directed to cities which support the [Syrian] opposition.”
Rebel fighter Ghassan, for example, was transferred to al-Minieh, a small town north of Lebanon’s second largest city Tripoli, completely supportive of the Syrian rebellion, according to the director of the local hospital, Amer Alameddine.
The hospital, abandoned until a few days ago, was reopened in haste by a well-funded local committee of Syrian refugees, linked to the humanitarian wing of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), to accommodate injured people from al-Qusayr.
The rooms are mostly empty. Just a few beds have been set up; crutches and food boxes remain unpacked in the corners.
But as soon as the first injured arrived, the committee spontaneously mobilized wheelchairs, crutches, food and other aid with the support of NGOs and private donors it would not name. The hospital is currently home to 35 injured people, most of them immobilized because of serious bone fractures. Some say they were injured while trying to get bread, but all the patients were men of fighting age.
“We welcomed 35 injured people at once,” said Kholoud, a nurse at the hospital. “It was much more than what we expected. We don't have instruments, nor enough medications. But God willing, we'll manage to treat them.”
The director wants to keep the hospital open for the influx of injured people who will arrive in the coming days. He has just received new mattresses and wants to put them on the empty floor upstairs. This makeshift hospital may serve to ease the burden on Tripoli’s hospitals, which are already nearly full. Rebels say there could be 100 more injured people arriving at the border in the coming days.
*not a real name