BEIRUT (Reuters) - When the aspirin and alcohol swabs fell from under her clothes at a Syrian army checkpoint, Rania stood petrified, looking first down at her fallen contraband and then up at the soldier who stared straight back at her.
Rania knew that smuggling food and medicine to Syrian opposition activists was considered by security forces to be “aiding terrorists” and treated as severely as weapons smuggling.
“I thought to myself: I am dead,” said Rania, 27, recalling the incident on the outskirts of Damascus.
She was in luck. The soldier was a sympathizer.
“Quick,” she quoted him as saying. “Pick up your medicine and go, before my commanding officer comes back.”
And with that pardon, she fled.
During the 13-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in shootings and bombardment of rebel areas, the United Nations says. Thousands more have been arrested.
Syrian authorities, who say foreign-backed militants have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and police, have supplied aid to residents they say are fleeing “armed terrorists” but have repeatedly denied access to international aid organizations.
Activists say most people wounded in the unrest will not go to state hospitals for fear they will be considered enemies of Assad and arrested rather than treated.
Amateur video shows poorly stocked makeshift hospitals in opposition strongholds, many without electricity, with doctors pleading for help from the outside world.
In the absence of international support, dissidents have found informal ways to smuggle food and medicine to injured and famished people around the country.
Rania and her friends, a group of young, liberal women, pretend to be conservative Muslims, hiding the medicines, food and money they bring out of Damascus to Homs city under thick layers of clothing and headscarves.
How many others make similar smuggling trips around Syria, they have no way of knowing. They say this method of smuggling is an open secret, but authorities are unwilling to search women, especially those who appear pious, as it would cause an outcry.
Rania, a qualified lawyer, operates in a team of four, including two female friends who worked as supermarket checkout assistants. The fourth team member is a doctor.
She agreed to be interviewed via Skype, but would not give her last name for fear that it could compromise their operation. Another of the girls, Ola, agreed to answer questions through a friend who sometimes helps the team, who herself asked not to be named.
All of the group are from Homs, one of the worst hit areas in Syria, where forces have been shelling central districts for months.
“Me and the girls met the doctor, who is a childhood friend, and asked him how we could help people who were injured or in need of food,” Rania said.
The team rented a large apartment in a poor area of Damascus where prices are low. All quit their jobs, except the doctor who does four shifts a week; authorities suspect doctors who leave work, residents say, assuming they have joined the opposition.
“We sold everything we could, even our jewelry,” said Ola. “We filled the apartment with rice, sugar, spaghetti and vegetable oil. The doctor uses his sources to get anti-inflammatories, bandages and trauma kits.”
To save money, the team eats two meals a day. To keep a low profile, they rarely make phone calls and only leave the building when necessary. They work at night.
When other activists visit, they are asked to bring their own food to keep costs low.
“Smuggling is expensive,” said the friend who asked not to be named. “You need a taxi driver who will agree to go through the checkpoints out of Damascus and take the two-hour drive to Homs. It is dangerous for him, too”.
Operations start at the apartment. The women change their jeans and tank tops for long-sleeved dresses and the conservative Muslim hijab head scarf.
“I am thin so we can fit lots of medical gauze under my clothes,” said the friend. “One of the girls stuffs cotton bandages in her bra.”
The women, often covered in a hidden layer of antibiotics, travel alone in a private taxi or a bus north out of the capital to Homs city.
“The government knows everything, but they don’t want extra trouble,” said the friend. “In (the Damascus suburb of) Douma, security members arrested some women and it caused a huge amount of civil disobedience.”
But not every checkpoint is safe and there are slip-ups that could land Rania and Ola in prison.
“Sometimes we are detained at checkpoints. We either pay a bribe or wait to see what will happen to us. Some of the checkpoints are manned by Assad loyalist gunmen who don’t work for the regular army,” says Ola. “We fear them the most.”
“But the worst time for me was when I was due to meet another activist to give him some blood bags, money and food,” said Ola. She waited in the rain but the man did not show.
“It was late at night, I was forced to leave the food on the side of the road as the risk of returning with it through checkpoints was too great,” she said.
“I walked home, crying. The trip had been for nothing.”
(The story was corrected to fix attribution in paragraph 24)
Editing by Dominic Evans and Sonya Hepinstall