Traveling through rebel-held parts of Latakia province, in the Jebel Turkman region, we met 34-year-old Umyara, an Alawite nurse working in a field hospital. In Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad, Sunnis and Alawites have lived side by side for centuries. Now, with intense fighting in the Alawite-led regime and the mostly Sunni-led Free Syrian Army, many fear that the animosity could spread to civilians across the religious divide.
The nurse, who asked us not print her full name or photo, speaks on the stairwell outside the hospital’s new surgery room, built with donations from two American medical NGOs. She met us alongside Dr. Mohammed, the Sunni orthopedic surgeon who serves as her boss and the chief of this hopsital.
The hospital has only been open for 20 days; the surgical unit is located underground for safety, as the area is heavily bombed and rocketed by regime forces.
“Before I came here, I worked for 14 years in the Assad Hospital in Latakia City,” she says. Now her husband and five children have moved to the mountains with her, to hide from regime forces who might be angry with her defection to a Sunni hospital in FSA territory. “I never feel any tension working here – we’re all people with the same degrees, no difference between Sunnis and Alawites in the hospital. We are one medical team.”
But the fact still stands that should Assad be removed from office, Alawite civilians like Umyara could face reprisals from angry Sunnis. “I am surely afraid for my safety after Assad falls,” the nurse says, despite assurances from local FSA leaders.
For now, within the hospital walls, Dr. Mohammed doesn’t see a distinction.
“Most of our patients are Sunni, but it’s no problem with us if someone who comes in is an Alawite…this is why she came to work with us.”
Every day, he says, his staff sees 20-35 patients, most of them injured in the war. A few days ago he treated a patient with cancer and has seen others with diabetes and hypertension. But the hospital doesn’t have have the medicine or resources to properly treat those patients – part of what he describes as a crisis in specialized care, one that now affects nearly every Syrian city.
When we met the doctor had just performed surgery on a young rebel fighter whose palms had practically been blown to pieces in an explosives accident.
The nurse says that as a Sunni fighter, his treatment would have been varied, at best, at her old regime-supported hospital. “I am working here now to help people, all people. Before, the treatment was specialized just for the Alawites.”
At the Assad Hospital, they might treat Sunnis, “but afterwards, the Assad forces come and get them and take them away. This has happened since the beginning of the revolution, since March of last year. I feel better now,” working here.