For Some Syrians, A Trip To The Hospital Takes Days

Syrian government troops are besieging the western town of Qusayr, a stronghold of rebel forces. For civilians and rebel fighters injured in the fierce clashes and intense aerial bombing campaigns in and around that Syrian border town, the nearest hospital is in another country: Lebanon.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. So, we heard how Syria's war affects Turkey. In fact, that civil war affects every country in the region, as you might imagine, when millions of Syrians have had to leave the country. The Western Syrian town of Qusair, long a stronghold of rebel forces, is now under siege by government troops. And for civilians, as well as rebel fighters, the nearest hospital is across the border in another country, Lebanon. NPR's Susannah George has this report from the border.

SUSANNAH GEORGE, BYLINE: The Syrian town of Qusair is just a 15-minute drive from the Lebanese border, but for wounded rebel fighters and civilians, avoiding government checkpoints and dodging violence the trip can take days.

ABU HOMSIE: (Foreign language spoken)

GEORGE: Abu Homsie says he had to be carried out of Qusair on a blanket. His right leg is broken in three places. As he left Qusair, one of the people travelling with him was shot in the head and killed. Two others were wounded. After two days of walking, hitching rides and then walking some more, he made it across the border and into the Lebanese town of Arsal. Arsal's a smuggling town, with a touch of the Wild West.

Men in bomber jackets and kafiyyas ride dirt bikes along narrow, unpaved streets. These days, the smuggling business is suffering. A town once awash in cheap cigarettes and diesel fuel is now flooded with Syrian refugees. In a small office above a convenience store, a man who calls himself the revolution's doctor juggles phone calls.

Once a wounded refugee or rebel fighter makes it to Arsal, he's the one who gets the call. His medical kit's little more than a small suitcase filled with donated medicine and bandages. His job, essentially, is triage. When the wounded arrive, he administers first aid, and then decides which patients are most in need of hospitalization.

Instead of being taken to a hospital, Abu Homsie, the rebel fighter with the broken leg, was brought here to a small, two-room apartment without electricity or running water. A doctor comes just once a day to change his bandages. Abu Mahmoud Zahouri, a refugee himself, does volunteer work at this makeshift clinic, even though he has no medical training.

ABU MAHMOUD ZAHOURI: (Foreign language spoken)

GEORGE: With a wry smile, he says, here's the intensive care unit. Inside the dark apartment, the newly arrived lie on thin mattresses on the floor. One man has a deep cut along his collarbone that needs stitches. Another has severe burns and shrapnel wounds. Both are waiting for transport to a nearby hospital. Those further along in their recovery, like Abu Homsie, are sitting outside.

Abu Homsie's broken leg's extended in front of him. He pulls back a swatch of fabric to reveal two metal pins through his shin, and another through his ankle. His foot - twisted at a grotesque angle - is badly swollen.

HOMSIE: (Foreign language spoken)

GEORGE: My foot needs surgery, he says, but they can't do it here.

SAMER ELQAADI: The needs are huge. It is a big humanitarian crisis.

GEORGE: Samer elQaadi works with the International Committee of the Red Cross here in Lebanon. The ICRC's been providing medical evacuations, medical training, supplies, even covering some of the hospital bills for wounded Syrians in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict. Samer says with limited supplies, there's only so much the Red Cross can do.

ELQAADI: Compared to the needs, maybe, well, maybe the assistance is not sufficient, and - but you have to go through priorities.

GEORGE: Back at the makeshift clinic in Arsal, some of the wounded men, perhaps a bit loopy on painkillers, descend into a fit of giggles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GEORGE: They're telling dark jokes about the volunteers' lack of medical training.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GEORGE: They're just practicing on us, says one man. We laugh, says another. What else can we do? Then, Abu Mahmoud, the volunteer, steps in, his voice serious.

ZAHOURI: (Foreign language spoken)

GEORGE: They're saying there's support for the wounded. Where is the support? Where are the doctors, he asks. We haven't seen it, he adds. We haven't seen anything at all. Susannah George, NPR News, Beirut.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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