REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) - When the Syrian army rolled into his hometown to crush rebellion there, Omar, an orthopedic surgeon, knew it was only a matter of time before his field hospital was discovered by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
For four days he hid inside the makeshift clinic in the northern town of Idlib, continuing to treat the sick and wounded along with the other staff, but as the soldiers drew closer Omar made his escape to Turkey.
“It was not a choice to come here. I was forced. The army came into Idlib. We kept working until they got too close. We worked until the last minute,” said Omar, 28, who did not give his full name because his relatives are still inside Syria.
From a small, windowless basement apartment in Turkey’s southern Hatay province a few hundred meters from the border, Omar now gathers drugs and medical supplies from all over Turkey to be smuggled to colleagues inside Syria.
The slick operation, set up by a union of expatriate Syrian doctors and involving some 60 smugglers, is only one of a large network of informal supply chains along the Syrian border that serve as a lifeline to those caught up in the violence.
“They need everything. All their supplies have been destroyed. Assad’s army has destroyed four of our stores and four field hospitals. This is only in our area. They are destroying many others elsewhere,” said Omar.
Donations come mainly from Syrian doctors living in Gulf Arab countries or in Europe, and the amounts vary significantly. Omar said they received a quarter of a million dollars one month but then only $50,000 the next. Last month they got $30,000.
The money buys drugs and medical equipment ranging from antibiotics to bandages and from syringes to large anesthetic machines. The supplies are then packaged and smuggled across by foot, donkey or motorcycle depending on where they are headed.
In three small rooms, boxes of medicine, bandages and gauze are stacked neatly onto shelves stretching up to the basement’s low ceiling and are kept cool by an air conditioner fixed to the wall.
Omar points to the Arabic writing on the boxes of medicine and grins. These are all from Syria, he said.
“Buying the medicine from inside Syria was my idea. Everyone thought I was crazy,” said Omar.
In Syria the drugs can be bought in bulk for a tenth the price in Turkey - although they are still out of reach for many Syrians impoverished by the conflict or physically unable to get to stores to buy them.
They are smuggled into Turkey and then repackaged into smaller boxes and dispatched back over the border.
“It saves a lot of money,” said Omar.
But with supplies running low inside Syria, Omar estimates they have only one month left before they will have to switch completely to foreign products.
Specialist drugs and medical equipment is sourced from inside Turkey, often at a discount. One company in Ankara supplied some medical equipment free of charge when it found out where it was going, said Omar.
“If we have the money, then we can get whatever we want. The Turkish government has helped us a lot. They do not try to restrict our work. We are all illegal here. They have rules here but they are helping us. We appreciate that,” said Omar.
Omar is interrupted every few minutes by a mobile phone in another room or by a steady stream of visitors whom he greets with a warm hug and a kiss on both cheeks.
With his slicked back hair, designer glasses and candid smile, Omar still looks a young man, but the last 15 months since the uprising in his homeland started have taken their toll.
Omar was taking exams to study in the United States when the protests started. He fled Syria without even going home to say goodbye to his parents and since his escape has only been back once. That was to bury his cousin, a rebel fighter shot and killed by Assad’s troops.
Omar says his age helps him to stay focused on his work.
“I am not married. It is good for me. To do this job you have to be free. I don’t have to think about a wife or children. Some of my friends here have children at home and they are always worrying,” he said.
Omar exhibits a familiar and increasing frustration directed at the international community and its reluctance to help him and others in the Syrian opposition.
Western nations say they are supporting the opposition with non-lethal aid. Some rebels have reported receiving weapons from private donors in Gulf Arab states, and Assad’s government insists it is fighting terrorist groups armed from abroad.
But for many rebel Syrians like Omar the foreign help is too little, too late.
“We wanted the world to help us but they do nothing. This is creating a bad feeling among Syrians. This just gives Assad more time to kill us. They just talk. No medical support, no humanitarian support, just talking,” said Omar.
“It has been more than a year now. We don’t want anything. We are just thinking about ourselves now. I think they want Assad to stay.”
Omar is interrupted once more as a group of men pour into the apartment and begin lifting boxes of medicine onto a tractor waiting to take the next batch of supplies to the border.
“I‘m sorry,” said Omar, “I have to go.”
Writing by Jonathon Burch; editing by Andrew Roche