On the ground in Syria's bloody civil war

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 2:06 p.m. MDT

Her father, Abdu Qassem, came in 15 minutes later, his shirt covered with blood, probably from carrying his daughter out of the car, and frantically asked the orderly behind the desk how she was doing.

Qassem said they had been driving through a neighborhood when their car was raked by machine-gun fire from government troops.

In the operating room, Fatima's crying grew muffled as an anesthetic was administered and her mouth went slack. Osman cleaned the blood away from the wound and tried to find a way to repair the damage.

Just a few feet away from the commotion, on the next bed, a nurse calmly bandaged the hand of a stone-faced rebel who was oblivious to the stricken child nearby.

A tiny boy walked in and stared with curiosity at the blood and ruin of Fatima's legs before a nurse suddenly saw him and ushered him out. It was Osman's 4-year-old son, Omar.

When Osman started pulling all-day and all-night shifts during Syria's civil war, his wife and two children moved into the hospital so that he would actually get to see them.

"He plays between the wounded. It's a great upbringing," Osman joked in the few calm moments before another patient was carried in. He spoke in English — a language he said he learned from watching the Fox Movie Channel on satellite TV. Perhaps another joke.

The 30-year-old doctor estimated that 80 percent of the patients are civilians, wounded by falling buildings and exploding shells from the constant bombardment that government forces mete out to the parts of the city outside their control.

On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported shelling in several areas across Aleppo that killed more than a dozen and collapsed a three- story building in the nearby neighborhood of Haideriya.

Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have been increasingly relying on the government's artillery and air power to fight the tenacious rebels who so far refuse to be dislodged from Aleppo.

The city is Syria's commercial hub, and its middle and upper classes were bastions of support for Assad. If the rebels took such a key city, it would give them a quasi-capital to complement the large swaths of territory they control in the north, up to the Turkish border.

Osman said the rebels he treats mostly have gunshot wounds from the ubiquitous snipers scattered over the many front lines.

The hospital itself has been hit directly twice by shells, demolishing two of the upper floors. Bombs fell nearby several times, spraying the entrance with shrapnel and debris.

The hospital has a staff of only five doctors and no surgeons, so difficult cases are often farmed out to other facilities, including a hospital in the town of al-Bab, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the northeast.

While there are enough drugs in the hospital so far to deal with the daily violence — which on Monday killed 25 and wounded dozens in shelling believed to be in retaliation for the rebel capture of an army barracks — the staff is overstretched.

"What day is it? I don't know. What time is it? I don't know," Osman said, adding that he goes to sleep at 4 a.m. and wakes up at 8 a.m. — unless he's roused earlier for an emergency.

"My life is just the wounded and the dead," he said.

Outside the hospital, in the surprisingly bustling neighborhood of Tareeq al-Bab, there is the sound of gunfire. A helicopter gunship is lazily circling the neighborhood and rebels on the roofs of the apartment buildings are futilely emptying the clips of their inadequate Kalashnikovs into the sky.

Abu Hassan, who was once a carpenter, sells vegetables on the street facing the hospital because there is no other work. He navigates the tortuous jigsaw of rebel- and government-controlled neighborhoods every day.

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