Under fire in Assad’s military hospital
Bizarrely, the Syrian regime will happily allow you to film its dead soldiers but makes filming living ones all but impossible. So we were given permissions – any day we wanted – to film military funerals at Tishreen military hospital in the much fought-over northern suburb of al-Qaboon.
On the way, we have to tell the story of Damascus at war which means covertly snatching images of the tanks, shell holes, roadblocks and rubble that are the new landscape of the Damascene suburbs.
At the hospital, you pass round the front the building to the grim back doors. There are larges wreathes – eight of them – at the edge of a beautifully swept, pristine area of tarmac where the military funerals are held.
On the back wall of the hospital itself next to this area, a large mural to Assad’s fallen, all poppies, arches, sabres and blue skies.
Inside the back doors, the stench of decomposing human beings hangs heavy and clings to you in the still hot morning of a Damascus July.
The brigadier in charge calmly tells me: “On most days there are about 40 coffins – but today as you see, many more. We have a problem though, because of the situation the band cannot get here to play the music. I’m sorry but I think there will be no funerals today.”
Inside I count 53 coffins. Hospital orderlies stapling the Syrian tricolour in rapid perfunctory style – they have done its so many times before. But outside this is interrupted by sudden bursts of gunfire. At first, it is the odd few rounds of automatic Kalashnikovs being let loose. But in the next hour, we clearly identified the whine of incoming rounds.
Curiously, 15 storeys up, we see two sandbagged machine gun nests and over the next 90 minutes film them as they spit gunfire into the immediate surrounding housing.
It is unclear precisely what is happening but all the soldiers around us insist the hospital is under attack. If so, yet again in this civil war the Geneva Conventions account for nothing.
They state that ‘In no circumstances may hospital zones be the object of attack. They shall be protected and respected at all times by the Parties to the conflict.
‘In the case of occupation of a territory, the hospital zones therein shall continue to be respected and utilized as such.’
We left after almost two hours of this, for safer ground. And a number of possibilities suggest themselves as to what we have just witnessed.
First – it was the rebels assaulting a well-known landmark, clearly identified as the biggest military hospital in the capital of Syria.
Second – the Syrian government had been using this hospital as a vantage and firing point, hence those machine gun nests on the roof, thus turning a hospital into a legitimate target for the rebels.
Third – I suppose it’s not impossible that the whole thing was somehow staged to make us believe that the hospital was in fact under attack. Thought the incoming rounds and the sound of helicopter gunships to strafe the area certainly make this look far-fetched.
But this happened in the capital, just about a week since the Red Cross declared this conflict to be a civil war in law. That means the world will be looking closely at what we have witnessed here today.
It must also be remembered that the Assad regime is notorious for targeting hospitals with its war machine and also using them in the most bestial fashion, as places of torture.
They say civil war is the dirtiest form of conflict and today we have witnessed just a taste of that.
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