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Washing away the blood in Syria

In the bloodied, frenetic mess of a Syrian opposition field hospital, one question emerges: "Where is the world's help?"
Last modified: 15 Aug 2012 07:47

With the acrid stench of disinfectant in the air, a woman, expressionless and intent on finishing this daily task as quickly as possible, sluices the last puddle of diluted blood off the hospital steps and onto the sidewalk.

For her this is routine. The pale faces of medical staff who for the past hour had been grimacing with intense concentration and inner frustration were close behind her.

"You cannot show our faces on television - you can't reveal what we are doing here," one doctor told me.

Two children under five years of age were dead and another - barely alive - had been sent to Turkey in a battered old car. Seven adults were seriously wounded. The hysteria of wailing relatives and children was now gone. The uncomfortable silence was deafening.

The stark reality echoing now in my mind as I write this a week later is that it was nothing unusual - it just happened to be caught on our camera.

Daily trauma

For months we have known about the medics wanting their work to be kept secret for fear they will be targeted in the same way that a rebel fighter could expect.

It had been one snapshot in the chain of daily trauma, the aftermath of what we all hear referred to as "indiscriminate shelling". The shells from long-range artillery had landed on a village near al-Atarib this time.

A two-year-old boy was lying lifeless on one of two beds in the tiny, ill-equipped emergency room.

The doctors had moved on to another patient after at least ten minutes of CPR, the hand pumped respirator now at work elsewhere.

The toddler's mother was being restrained in the other bed as a nurse applied bandages to her face. On the floor were injured men and women being checked over in some sort of triage process. And outside this claustrophobic mayhem on the reception room floor, another young child took his final breath.

I have no doubt that no one crammed into those 60 minutes of excruciating attempts to save lives could be described as a revolutionary. They were all civilians. And nobody wanted to talk about freedom or human rights.

There was just a question barked in my direction: "Where is the help that the outside world keeps promising?" Or words to that effect.

'Guns, not medicine'

Earlier that day, the same question was put to me by a brigadier-general who defected five months ago from his post as head of intelligence for a region that included Aleppo city.

But the question was aimed in a different direction. He wanted more guns, bigger ones. And much more ammunition.

No mention of humanitarian assistance.

Was he a true revolutionary? Well, he says he is now. But a year ago, he was actively at work trying to crush the uprising.

Where do the civilians stand in all of this?

Certainly the majority of the masses who have fled Aleppo and many of those who remain there would not candidly have numbered themselves as actively supporting the uprising months ago.

Top of wish list

Guns, heavier weaponry, bullets, shells and rockets are at the top of the wish list for those fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Second comes medical personnel, field hospitals, medicine and equipment.

Some of the latter we know have been getting into Syria, mostly through the smuggling routes on Syria's borders.

Primarily, those routes run through Turkey. It's a trickle of support, not a surge, though.

My line of thought fast forwards to Istanbul, and coverage of Hillary Clinton's Saturday visit that packed in separate talks with the Turkish foreign minister, the prime minister, the president, a selection of refugees, activists, prominent opposition members in exile and the Syrian National Council.

One headline to emerge from those meetings was that Turkey and the US had "agreed to accelerate preparations for the fall of the Syrian president".

Meaning?

The setting up of a bilateral team to help the opposition while trying to work out which part of a splintered political spread of people could be onside. Or, better still, have some semblance of unity.

Also, providing aid to fleeing refugees and planning contingencies for worst-case scenarios that include a chemical weapons attack.

No-fly zone

Questions put at the obligatory joint news conference raised the idea of a no-fly zone - not for the first time.

It wasn't ruled out by Clinton, who more than made up for any perceived differences with her NATO ally by repeated gushing thanks for Turkey's costly operation to provide an undeclared safe haven for more than 55,000 registered refugees and the Free Syrian Army.

Plus an assurance that the US would stand by Turkey in its fight with the PKK, the Kurdish Workers' Party, to ensure it would get no foothold in Northern Syria.

And there was, of course, the announcement of another $5.5 million in humanitarian aid.

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, also said a no-fly zone was still on the table, despite the knowledge that Russia and China would be likely to veto any such move.

Clinton said it was going to require more in-depth analysis by the joint working group. It being an election year in the United States, it is unlikely that any unilateral action will be taken. "Contingency", "operational planning" and "co-ordination" were the buzz words on  Sunday.

Before leaving Istanbul to the surreal feeling of London in Olympic euphoria, my mind went back to the hospital. Political reality is hard to describe to those bereaved or maimed by a war for which initially they had no vested interest.

Daily trauma

I called it a snapshot in a chain of daily trauma. It's probably more aptly described as a perpetual horror story that, for now, has no end. And it's playing out every day all over Syria, much of it unseen by media.

The images of the doctors' pale faces and the children who died take an indelible place in a collage of memory from war zones I have worked in over the past three decades.

Usually, that recurring universal question, where is the help from outside, is eventually answered by meaningful humanitarian aid, with or without military intervention.

For Syria, it's much more complicated.

And I'm pretty sure that when I return there again soon, I will still stumble to placate or calm the next questioner even more than the last time.

The UN is unable to make a move as long as Russian and Chinese objections continue to exist, and the states that want Assad out of power are engaged in talk of an endgame that doesn't appear to have been worked out.

And the cleaner in the hospital will still be going through her daily routine of washing away the bloodshed.

Follow Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmon's on Twitter @SimmJazeera.