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Syria 1st-Hand: The French Surgeon, 71, Who Saved Lives in Homs (de la Baume)

French surgeon Jacques Bérès speaks with France 24 about his efforts in Homs in Syria

Maia de la Baume writes for The New York Times:

At the age of 71, Dr. Jacques Bérès, a veteran of war zones, left his comfortable Paris life last month to smuggle himself into Homs, the center of the Syrian revolt, to tend to the wounded and the sick.

Working in secret, in a dark, abandoned house, with only one operating table, three beds, four local aides and intermittent electricity, Dr. Bérès operated on 89 people, he said; all but nine survived.

Dr. Bérès, a surgeon who was part of the group that founded Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, appears to be the only Western doctor who has been able to enter Homs, where security forces have been carrying out a brutal assault. His account offers a rare glimpse at the medical emergency that has developed as the Syrian conflict rages on.

His journey into Syria began in early February when he crossed the Lebanese border with the help of smugglers, carrying luggage filled with medical equipment. He then traveled by car and motorbike to Al Qusayr, another besieged city that is part of Homs Province, where he worked for a few days with a Syrian doctor. When he finally made it to Homs, he spent about two weeks there.

He was forced to move once — “I sensed that the building had become a target for government forces” — and conditions were far from ideal.

“The place was so crowded that we had to walk between the stretchers,” Dr. Bérès said in an interview late last month in his Paris apartment, just days after returning.

“I treated all kinds of wounds, from heavy mortars, shots from long-range sniper rifles, high-velocity rounds, shrapnel,” he said. His makeshift hospital was only a few minutes from Baba Amr, the neighborhood that had some of the heaviest shelling and fighting.

One day, he said, 11 people died in his hospital, some before he could even begin to treat them. “Some of them had brain damage and arrived already dead,” Dr. Bérès said. “Others were so severely injured that they could not be saved.”

Many of his patients were children, he said. At least 400 children have died since the beginning of the uprising, according to Unicef.

He was clearly affected by the death of a teenage boy, “who had pale skin, handsome features, a slightly mischievous look and a cap on his head which made him look like Gavroche in Victor Hugo’s ‘Misérables.’ ” The boy, Dr. Bérès said, “had almost been cut into two.”

Dr. Bérès left Syria before the government began its all-out assault on Homs in late February.

“I was sad,” he told the French radio network RTL after his return to Paris. “I saw useless suffering, cruelty, meanness, the suffering of children, of families.”

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