BEIRUT, Lebanon — When 18-year-old Murshed Aba Zeid was shot in the face by security forces outside his home in Izraa, southern Syria, his family knew it was a risk taking him to the state-run hospital for life-saving treatment.
Like many other Syrians, they’d heard the horror stories of the mukhabberat, the men in leather jackets with their pistols and Kalashnikovs, who have stormed hospitals to arrest injured protesters at their beds, bundling them, some on stretchers, into police vehicles and on to military hospitals or other security facilities.
“When we got to the hospital, some of Murshed’s relatives refused to come inside, fearing they would be arrested,” said a relative who accompanied Murshed into the hospital in early May and spoke to Insan, a leading Syrian human rights group.
The relative said the family decided Murshed was at less risk of arrest than other patients because he was mentally handicapped and thus of less interest to the secret police. “We felt sure that because Murshed was mentally handicapped he would not be arrested at the hospital, like other wounded people have been.”
She was wrong. Recovering from successful surgery, Murshed was dragged out of bed by the secret police and driven two hours north to Damascus where, according to relatives, he was held — along with hundreds of other dead and dying from the military assault on the Daraa region — inside the Tishreen Military hospital.
The secret police returned Murshed’s body to his family last Tuesday, bearing the scars of severe torture.
On a video posted to YouTube, those examining Murshed’s corpse point out the lacerations, bruises and burns that appear consistent with severe beating and electric shock torture, documented by Human Rights Watch as being used in Syrian prisons during the crackdown.
A gaping gunshot wound is visible in Murshed’s side while a massive scar runs from his ribs to his groin, bound together with the crudest of stitches.
Murshed’s neck had been broken, as had his nose, say the examiners on the video, who display what appears to be the young man’s military service record book, including the official stamp of the military court, excusing Murshed from service because he was mentally handicapped.
All foreign media are barred from Syria but experienced local journalists and human rights researchers found no reason to doubt the authenticity of the footage. Syrians injured by security forces are facing what appears to be a systematic attempt by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to deny or disrupt the provision of medical care.
In repeated cases across several different Syrian cities, doctors and those seeking to assist the injured have either been physically prevented from giving life-saving care to patients or have been threatened against doing so, while residents have formed human shields around hospitals in response to secret police raiding and carrying away the wounded.
Nowhere to go
The denial of medical care begins the moment the protester is shot.
In the central city of Homs, a focus for anti-regime protests, 42-year-old Fawaz al-Haraki bled to death on April 22 after the car ferrying him to help was shot at by the secret police, forcing it off the main road and down back alleys.
“Sometimes people have been shot even before they could get to the hospital so we had Fawaz under a blanket, but the secret police car still spotted us and opened fire,” said Abu Haider, who was in the car at the time.
“There were bullets all around. We were risking our lives but also the life of Fawaz because when you are injured like that every moment is important. Because we were forced to take the longer way, Fawaz bled to death.”
On that same Friday, three other cars ferrying wounded protesters from Homs disappeared after approaching a security checkpoint. One of the drivers, Raed Mehran, had been on the phone with Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, hanging up as he said he was approaching a checkpoint.
Several weeks later, Tarif received news that four of the men in the cars had died while the others had been imprisoned.
In Jabla, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the injured from an attack on April 24 couldn’t even be bundled into a car, pinned down inside the Hamwi Mosque by snipers shooting anyone who moved outside.
“We can’t even get to the pharmacy to get medicine because of the snipers on the roofs,” said Dr. Zakariya al-Akkad, at the time. “All I can do is try to stop the bleeding.” He couldn’t, and 17-year-old Ali Halabi, along with several others, died.
Akkad has since gone missing after the secret police, having discovered the doctor had spoken to the media, surrounded his house and threatened his wife.
In Daraa, where the Syrian uprising began, snipers have also killed those attempting to collect the dead for burial.
“I saw a young man in the street who was shot with a single round,” said an eyewitness in the city, speaking at the height of the military siege late last month. “When his brother went out to help him he too was shot with a single round. Then a neighbor went out to try and collect the two bodies and he was shot, also with a single round.”
Human Rights Watch documented cases of security forces preventing casualties from reaching the hospital and firing on protesters seeking to help the wounded in Harasta, a town 12 kilometers northeast of Damascus, and also in Daraa.
Also on April 22, a 13-year-old boy from the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh died from a gunshot wound, said a local doctor, after secret police beat his father as he tried to get his son to hospital in neighboring Daraya.
The doctor has since begun treating injured residents of Maadamiya in private homes, without anything like adequate medicine.
“No one from Maadamiya wants to take their wounded to hospital. Security is arresting wounded protesters and taking them to security branches and we don’t know where they are,” said the doctor.
“I try to help with simple tools, but I can’t do big surgeries. I can stop the bleeding and sew wounds, but not more. The army has many checkpoints around Maadamiya and they don’t allow anyone to get even some antibiotics here.”
“Security entered the hospital”
On the same Friday Fawaz died, a young nurse on duty in the emergency ward of a hospital in Duma, a town 15 kilometers northeast of Damascus, described a raid on the hospital by the secret police.
“I was in the hospital between eight and nine in the evening when about 20 security men with Kalashnikovs entered the hospital and asked reception to give them the names of all patients submitted that day,” said the nurse, speaking on condition her identity and the name of the hospital not be revealed.
“We were afraid of them. They asked us to bring them all the wounded, not those who were just normally ill.”
The doctors and nurses were made to escort all 30 injured protesters, some of them carried on stretchers, from their beds to the police vehicles.
“I remember a teenager who was injured in his arm. He was exhausted, but they put him in a car anyway and he was crying from the pain. But I couldn’t do anything for him,” said the nurse. “They told us they were taking them to the military and police hospitals to treat them under their observation.”
Residents of Duma had earlier formed a human shield around the gates of the private-run Hamdan Hospital, trying to prevent a similar secret police raid.
“This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by the secret police,” said a man who took part in the human shield, which he said broke up after security forces fired on it and then arrested several injured patients.
Three days later, on April 25, three doctors from the Hamdan hospital were arrested by the secret police.
A week after Fawaz died, residents of Homs also stood watch around the Al-Barr private hospital.
“They prevent patients from being taken to hospital,” said a doctor directly involved in treating patients under the custody of the secret police. “It is something horrible. We feel hate toward this security regime.”
Treated or tortured?
Injured protesters in the custody of security forces also stand less chance of receiving adequate medical care, according to testimony from doctors and human rights researchers.
“When we were treating patients from the protests the mukhaberrat said to us, ‘You don’t have to take care for these people, you have to care for the injured security men,’” said the doctor who treated patients in police custody.
“As doctors we have our priorities, but the mukhaberrat don’t accept our priorities. It’s not like they say, ‘We will kill you if you care for the patients,’ but the doctors cannot say no to them. They are very afraid.”
Insan documented the case of Hussein Moutaz Issa, 23, who died in police custody after being arrested with a gunshot wound left untreated.
Issa was shot in his right shoulder by security forces while trying to escape door to door raids on homes in Madaya, 40 kilometers northwest of Damascus, on April 28. He made it to a neighbor’s house where several eyewitnesses, one of them with a medical background, told Insan they managed to stop the bleeding and the wound appeared non-fatal.
But later that night Issa was arrested and died in police custody, his body left at the main regional hospital in Zabadani. According to a doctor from the hospital who spoke to Insan, Issa had bled to death after receiving no medical attention.
“He was left without medical attention and bled to death,” said the doctor. “This is homicide. I saw the body myself. This young man was not offered any medical attention.”
Even more disturbingly, like Murshed and countless other Syrians held by the secret police, the body showed marks of torture.
“It seems that after he was captured he was severely beaten,” said the doctor. “He was not even left to die in peace.”