Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wounded Syrian fighters yearn for return to frontlines

AMMAN, Jordan, Dec. 11 (UPI) --A little over three months ago in the village of Ghabagheb in Syria’s southern municipality of Dara’a, a two man hit team from the Free Syrian Army awaited the arrival of an important Syrian Arab Army figure. One of the FSA soldiers, a 24-year-old defected SAA soldier from Dara’a named Sultan, had been tipped off by a contact still enlisted in the army battling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The pair waited but the man never came. Instead, a mini bus arrived and seven SAA soldiers emerged. Realizing they had been betrayed, Sultan’s comrade fled, leaving Sultan face-to-face with the enemy combatants. Time slowed down as Sultan was overcome by melancholy. As he stared at his foes a thought crept into his conscious: “Am I going to die here, in this place?” Despite being filled with fear at the notion of an unavoidable demise Sultan felt no regrets. Both sides opened fire.
Sultan took down two of the soldiers before his luck ran out. Three exploding bullets crashed into his right leg, just under the knee in the upper shin area. As the bullets penetrated his leg the fear vanished, he says.

“Before you are shot you feel fear but when you are shot the fear goes because you know death is coming.” But Sultan wasn’t prepared to die. He crawled 100 meters to safety behind the corner of a nearby building and continued returning fire. Here, a local woman found him and pulled him a further 150 meters away from the fighting. For 45 minutes, Sultan waited until FSA forces arrived to take him to a field hospital.

The Syrian Civil War has dragged on since March 2011 pitting opposition forces against the Assad regime. The war has grown in intensity in the past year, as packs of foreign fighters have entered the fray on both sides, twisting the conflict into a brutal sectarian affair. Despite peace talks in Geneva planned for January 22 there are few who believe the war is nearing its conclusion. While exact figures are hard to find, most estimates put the dead in Syria at over 120,000, a figure that will only be added to as neither the opposition nor the regime appear ready to concede. As the war continues to destroy proud cities and claim heavy casualty counts, Sultan and other wounded opposition fighters are rehabilitating in hopes that they regain enough mobility to return to the battlefield.

“As soon as they recover everyone wants to go back and fight,” said Abu Yara, a 19-year-old who was shot through the left shoulder by a sniper and was told by his fellow soldiers that he would “definitely die”. He had an emergency operation and rested at home for a month before going north to Turkey, selling his rifle and motorbike, and buying a ticket from Antakya to Istanbul and then on to Amman.

Sultan and Abu Yara now reside in a hospital in the northern Jordanian governorate Mafraq where wounded Free Syrian Army fighters receive free accommodation and physical therapy paid for by private donors from Gulf countries and various NGOs. The hospital is currently hosting around 60 wounded or disabled fighters and is staffed by three doctors and four nurses. The hospital is not publicized but is known by fighters simply by word of mouth, in order to keep it secret from authorities.

Sitting on a bench in a public area in Jordan’s capital Amman, Sultan now needs a crutch to walk. The inside of his right knee is indented by a large crater and he has three metal rods sticking out of his right leg, with a further three scars where the rods were previously inserted. While his black, slicked-back hair shows tips of gray beginning to creep in, a possible sign of the constant pressure of living through war that is stealing the remainder of his youth, his piercing green eyes constantly squint as his round face breaks into laughter. As he puffs a cigarette, he speaks of an unflinching itch to return to the battlefield.

“Once you fight you want to fight again, you get used to it,” he said. “When the fear breaks you don’t care anymore.”

Despite his desire to get back to fighting, Sultan realizes there are obstacles in his and his comrades’ paths.

“Seventy percent of the hospital’s wounded are disabled and even if I recover I won’t ever be 100 percent like before,” he said. Pictures of his initial x-rays show a large portion of his shinbone completely missing after being shattered into tiny pieces by the exploding shells. He had to have marrow removed from his hip and placed into his shin so the bone could properly regenerate.

A day later, Sultan posted a photo on Facebook featuring himself, Abu Yara and five other former opposition fighters. In the photo, one man is on crutches and another holds up a peace sign with his right hand as his left one is bandaged. The caption to the photo reads: ‘We will return to our country. Being hit will not stop us from continuing on our path.’

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