'We are fighters': Wounded Syrian rebels caught in Lebanon

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon - Fadi Annour was just a few days into his job treating wounded Syrian rebels in a clinic in Lebanon when a group from a Hezbollah-allied militia broke into the compound high in the mountains.

“The clinic was four days old, and I was seeing a patient. Then another patient ran up to me and said, ‘Doctor! Doctor! We have to leave because there’s a raid going on,’” said Annour, a 28-year-old Syrian neurosurgeon.

He rushed to help four patients into his car and raced from the clinic, which he thought was safely hidden away from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and his Lebanese allies Hezbollah. 

Annour was wrong. The war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives within Syria is following wounded rebels, and those fighting to save them, out of the country.

The location of Annour’s new clinic, set up by the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition to treat opposition fighters, is a stark example of just how enmeshed Syria is with its tiny neighbor Lebanon. The field hospital sits in a pro-Syrian opposition town a few miles from the Syria-Lebanon border, and right in the middle of the Hezbollah-controlled Bekaa Valley.

This 20 year old wounded Syrian opposition fighter who was hit by shrapnel in both arms when his rocket launching position was hit by an artillery shell. He says he wants to return to Syria to fight Assad's troops when he recovers from his wounds. Ben Gilbert

Most Sunni Muslims in Lebanon support the rebels trying to topple Assad – who is part of Syria's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. But Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have fought inside Syria in support of Assad's government forces.

During a recent visit, the new clinic was treating around 80 patients for severe gunshot, burn and shrapnel wounds. All of the men being treated were between the ages of 20 and 35.

Annour requested that the name of the town, and the patients’ last names, not be disclosed in order to protect them from retribution from the Syrian government and Hezbollah. 

The wounded fighters hidden in the new clinic in a nondescript building with no sign called on the world to act to boost the rebels. 

Nizar, a Syrian fighter badly wounded in the battle for Qusair, a key crossroads for supplies in Syria, said the United States and other Western countries should impose a no-fly zone.

“We are fighters. A shell lands next to us and we die, hey, that’s life,” said Nizar. He claims to have defected from one of Assad’s notorious security services, Air Force Intelligence, to join the rebels. “But if you’re talking about women and children, and they’re dying, why should they die? They should protect civilians.”

Nizar, who called the situation within the country a “human catastrophe,” said he left his job after the Syrian Army began massacring civilian Sunni Muslims. 

Fellow patient Kassem, 20, was sent to the hospital after shrapnel from a missile tore his arms apart in Qusair.

Wounded Syrian men rest at a rehabilitation clinic in Lebanon run by the Syrian National Coalition's aid unit. The clinic houses around 80 Syrian men, between the ages of 20 and 35, many of whom are opposition fighters. Ben Gilbert

He called the situation in Syria “miserable.”

“Nobody helps us,” said the former petrochemical engineering student. “We fight alone. Nobody stands beside us. We need any help. You think a machine gun can fight a tank?”

The clinic’s new location is not entirely safe, according to Annour, the neurosurgeon. Two months ago, armed men attacked an ambulance transporting a patient to surgery and kidnapped him, he said.

“(The kidnappers) gave us indications that he was alive and well, but now we don’t know what’s happened to him,” Annour said.

Since then, the Lebanese Red Cross has refused to transport the clinic’s patients in ambulances through certain Hezbollah-dominated areas without an army escort. And private cars carrying patients through those areas have been shot at, Annour said. 

For the most part, though, Hezbollah and their Syrian opposition enemies coexist inside Lebanon.

"It’s a strange situation,” Nizar said. “But Hezbollah doesn’t want to bring the fight to Lebanon. They’ve said that if you want to fight us, come to Syria.”

Karim said he would do just that when he heals. His family is still in Syria, and he said he still had a role to play in the war.

“It’s our land, we will fight, even if we get killed,” Karim said. “We will not give it up to Hezbollah or Bashar [Assad]. No way.”