FRONTLINE: Syrian Activists Run Secret Hospitals

For our partner program PBS FRONTLINE, reporter Ramita Navai, traveled undercover through Syria along a network of safe houses and secret hospitals.

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Patients in government-run hospitals in Syria are being tortured in an attempt to suppress dissent, according to a report by Amnesty International.

The 39-page report says patients in at least four state hospitals have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including by medical staff.

Syrian authorities have denied torturing opponents of the government.

"In a location on the outskirts of Damascus, we met an opposition doctor," Navai said. "He spends every night treating the wounded."

And he's not doing it at local hospitals, because government militia are raiding the hospitals and shutting out anyone whom they believe has been a protester, Navai found. Instead, a network of secret, make-shift hospitals have been established around the country.

"We got access via the activists who we were effectively embedded with," Navai said. "It was really quite an operation just getting us to these secret hospitals."

She described the hospitals as almost surreal. Virtually every patient is suffering from a gunshot wound. Many of them are children. The sterilizing solution they use is stored in cut out Coke bottles.

What equipment they do have, they share with other hospitals. It's stored at a warehouse, away from the patients and hospitals, so that if there is a raid, the equipment is more likely to survive and a new hospital can be set up.

"Within 10 minutes, they can get operating tables, heart monitors to makeshift rooms that operate as operating theatres or to the secret hospitals themselves," Navai said.

Navai said she met one patient who had actually been taken to a traditional hospital. The state militia, however, raided the hospital and if not for the quick thinking of a sympathetic doctor, the man likely would have found himself seized by the militia or killed on the spot.

Protesters say the militia often kidnap the injured, torture them, kill them and then return the bodies to family members a week later. Instead, the doctor told militia that the patient had died and wheeled him to the morgue. There, he was taken straight to a secret hospital for treatment.

"There are few doctors who were willing to risk their lives to help injured protesters, because it's so dangerous," Navai said. One doctor told Navai he himself knew of 10 doctors who had been imprisoned for treating protesters.

Syrian officials have denied all allegations of mistreating protesters, though Amnesty International released a 39-page report documenting just this type of abuse.

Ramita Navai's documentary on PBS Frontline is scheduled for November 8.

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    A secret hospital in Syria (Photo: FRONTLINE)

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    Shown: FRONTLINE reporter Ramita Navai meets four soldiers on the run at a secret location deep in the Syrian countryside. The soldiers say they deserted the Army because they were forced to shoot at protesters.
    Credit: Courtesy FRONTLINE