A piece I wrote from Syria for the Swiss weekly WOZ Die Wochenzeitung : it is based on the account of a doctor in Ras al-‘Ayn (Sere Kanye in Kurdish), who accused the Arab armed opposition of neglecting the health sector. The response I got from the Free Syrian Army’s commander in Hasakeh is that weapons come before medicines in the current situation. For those of you who don’t read German (like me;), here is the original English version. Photo taken by my friend Bahzad Hajj Hammo, who writes for the Syrian weekly Jisr.
Free Syrian Army: In a stateless country weapons have the priority over medicines
By Andrea Glioti
Ras al-‘Ayn (Hasakeh-Syria)- April 29, 2013
Over the last year, the Syrian armed opposition has expanded significantly its area of influence at the expenses of the regime. However, since the State hospitals stopped functioning in the hands of the rebels, people need to cope with the lack of drugs and medical personnel. In such dire conditions, the phalanges of the opposition are blamed for living in luxury at the expenses of the neglected health sector.
On April 22, the European Union lifted the oil embargo on Syria with the declared aim to help the uprising in coordination with the most-widely recognized opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), whose armed wing is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). For the opposition, the condition to restart selling oil is the formation of a transitional Government in the liberated areas, but who will ensure that oil revenues will not enrich arm dealers only?
Located in the north-eastern province of al-Hasakeh, the Arab-Kurdish town of Ras al-‘Ayn (Serê Kaniyê in Kurdish) is a crucial border passage to Turkey, which was taken over by the Arab opposition in October 2012.
In February, it has been the battlefield of two-weeks of clashes between the Arab opposition and the Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), the armed wing of the PKK-tied PYD (Democratic Union Party, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat). A truce signed on February 17 is still holding, but the situation is likely to explode again soon. “We are committed to the agreement, but we don’t consider liberated the areas under the control of the Pyd, as there is no revolutionary flag waving over them,” affirms maj. Muntasir al-Khalid, commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Military Council of the province of Hasakeh.
Echoing the position of most Kurdish opposition parties, the PYD avoided Government shelling by keeping aloof from Arab rebels, while profiting from the regime’s need to count on a Kurdish buffer zone to deter any possible Turkish interference in support of the FSA. The result is that most Kurdish areas enjoy now a de-facto autonomy and the Pyd refuses categorically to hand them over to the FSA.
In such a volatile context, Ghuraba’ al-Sham’s Wa’el Abu Ahmad is one of the few active doctors. Despite having a stable occupation in Russia, he decided to return to fight and heal the wounded in Aleppo: in his words, “the gun in one hand and the first-aid kit in the other.”
Six months ago, when Ras al-‘Ayn fell in the hands of the opposition, Abu Ahmad settled there to open his ‘clinic’: two tiny rooms, whose floors are scattered with unpacked drugs and potato sacks. “We received used and half-empty medicine stocks from the Turkish border passage and, overall, around one fourth of the medicines are expired,” complains Abu Ahmad, while pointing at the date stated on the boxes.
According to the doctor’s experience, the ongoing conflict has led to the outbreak of lungs inflammation, due to the exhalations of corpses and waste, besides the scorches caused by the homemade refining of fuel oil (mazout). Moreover, during the Arab-Kurdish clashes, numerous dogs contracted rabies after eating the corpses left in the streets, but Abu Ahmad lacks the serum needed to heal those bitten.
“Three months ago, fourteen people died of kidney diseases, because the State hospital was closed and the necessary equipment got stolen,” continues a disappointed Abu Ahmad.
A patient from Deyr az-Zor wrote a message on the clinic’s wall: “If every mujahidin gave 1kg of wheat for the treatment he receives for free.” Dr. Abu Ahmad works as a volunteer and blames the FSA Military Council for keeping making promises without allocating anything out of the profits derived from the seizure of barns in Ras al-‘Ayn.
As a matter of fact, maj. Muntasir al-Khalid confirms that 3 to 4 million dollars in wheat were sold solely by the FSA Military Council to buy weapons at the Iraqi and Turkish border, following the clashes with the PYD.
“The opposition took over oil wells, poultry, cows and we cannot even afford a 8000 Syp power generator,” continues Abu Ahmad, “1000Syp from every fighter would be enough to satisfy our needs, but they prefer to spend hundreds of dollars in cigarettes, banquets, cars and weapons.”
The FSA blunt response is that, under the light of the current situation, the priority goes to weapons rather than doctors. “The health sector requires a State support, whereas our capabilities are modest,” affirms a peeved maj. Muntasir al-Khalid, “weapons and cars are essential and we’re paying them from our pockets, so that at the moment they come before medical support.” The FSA major laughs at the doctor’s allegations of luxury, “This is what you call luxury?” he says pointing at a pack of few Syrian banknotes on the mattress where he is lying. A few minutes before, a young bearded mujahidin from the FSA-affiliated brigade Dir’ al-muslimin has entered the room to boast about the group’s latest achievements with another journalist: “We are making progresses…Cars, weapons, you saw Abu Wa’el’s new Jeep?”
The list of dr. Abu Ahmad’s complaints is still long. “Both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Military Council have ambulances, but they don’t allow me to use them,” asserts the doctor, “I need to arrange trips to reach villages 40Km away by renting a motorcycle without any sort of protection.”
On the clinic’s walls there are YPG graffiti and Christian icons: the doctor shows them as evidence that everyone receives medical treatment, despite the Islamist orientation of Ghuraba’ al-Sham. Nevertheless, on the battleground there is no echo of these principles. “We received several aid offers from the YPG, but I cannot accept, as the Arab opposition would accuse me of being their agent,” reports Abu Ahmad, “in their eyes, a Kurdish house is a red line I shouldn’t cross to help.”
This is the context where the EU plans to inject oil revenues. At the moment, the oil fields are divided between several different militias, including some outside the SNC umbrella, hence the coalition is against reopening the oil trade. “We’re against selling oil under the current circumstances, there is no dialogue between the different forces in control of the oil wells,” reassures Muntasir al-Khalid, “the oil trade remains dependent on the formation of an interim government on the Syrian ground”
On the other hand, dr. Abu Ahmad remains sharply critical of the future Syrian partner of EU oil imports. “You can call it the National Coalition of thieves: millions coming from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been amassed in Reyhanli [N/A:Turkish refugee camp] and we haven’t seen anything,” maintains the doctor, “I just want those responsible of exploiting the mujahidin to be held accountable.”