Struggle to reach help in times of war

SARC has mobile clinics to deal with persons injured in clashes

While the Syrian government has been urging citizens to vote on the new Constitution due to be submitted to referendum on Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been pressing both the regime and rebels to agree to daily cease fires in contested areas so medical and food aid can be delivered to trapped civilians.

Volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, an affiliate of the ICRC, are poised to conduct ceasefire missions in ‘hot’  areas to provide relief for civilians.

This past week, Syrians living in peaceful areas have assembled in neighbourhood venues to debate the provisions of the new Constitution. Radio and television have bombarded Syrians with discussions of 157-Article document. A participant in a gathering at an auditorium near the national museum in Damascus said that the discussion was far more vigorous than it could have been a year ago. If the Constitution is approved, multi-party parliamentary elections will be held within 90 days.

Meanwhile, volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), an affiliate of the ICRC, are poised to conduct ceasefire missions into ‘hot’ areas to provide relief for civilians. SARC volunteers have already delivered tonnes of supplies to flashpoint areas of Homs where rebel fighters battle government troops.

The volunteers, mostly young men and women, joined SARC expecting to serve on peacetime missions but are now facing civil conflict. In addition to saving the lives of people involved in accidents and medical emergencies, they risk their own lives to treat gunshot, blast and shrapnel wounds, deliver emergency supplies and deal with the terrible results of bombings.      

SARC’s secretary general was assassinated last year and a volunteer was killed when his ambulance came under fire in Homs. The organisation, founded in 1942, has 14 branches and 80 sub-branches around the country. SARC’s main Damascus base is located in the basement of the nine-storey Red Crescent hospital. Each team is made up of four ‘first aiders,’ all volunteers, and a driver. 

Hani Hawasly, a tall mathematician turned photographer, observes, “Ambulances do not move until the operations room understands what has happened and where the team is going.  If there is uncertainty, a four-wheel driver goes to provide visuals of the scene and report back to the operations room.”

Serving for a cause

Of this branch’s 100 active ‘first aiders,’ there are only three or four doctors, the rest are students, engineers, and businessmen who take time away from their regular work to serve.

Dr Muhammad Nour Audi, an intern in a government hospital, is one of the few physicians on the teams.  His expertise enables him to make “a more detailed assessment and advise patients" about where to seek treatment. "Sometimes patients refuse to go to public hospitals” because they have been wounded in demonstrations or clashes with the security forces and fear arrest. SARC also has mobile clinics which deal with some of these cases.

Last month he was sent to an area outside Damascus where his team went from house to house treating 70 people in four hours. After dark they had to use torches because there was no electricity. “One patient had been shot four times and was bleeding heavily...it took me 15 minutes to find a vein to give him plasma.”

Damascus branch secretary general Khaled Erksoussi, a telecommunications engineer, says, “This is a unique situation...It is very difficult to work when the conflict is internal. We have to use our impartiality to gain credit with both sides. If a house is fired on, we don’t report it.  We only care about helping the most vulnerable people.
We coordinate with everyone who will give us access.” He admits, however, that it can be more difficult to contact the opposition than the authorities.  So far, the ICRC has failed to negotiate the proposed humanitarian ceasefires that would mean risky deployment of SARC volunteers in contested areas.

They hope the constitutional referendum will initiate the transition to democracy and bring an end to the fighting that is killing so many Syrians and threatening all out civil war. But they fear that the rebels, backed by the west, have chosen war.

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