Local doctor leading relief mission in Syria

STEUBENVILLE – While the rest of the world debates the wisdom and political implications of intervening in his homeland’s civil war, Syrian-born gastroenterologist Dr. Basel Termanini has managed to make life a little more tolerable for some in the war-ravaged nation.

The local doctor has been leading a relief mission to his homeland, delivering containers filled with much-needed medical equipment and supplies to rebel-held areas about 100 miles south of the Turkish border that have been hard-hit by the fighting.

The United Nations estimates upward of 100,000 people have died in the conflict, including 1,400 who died a gruesome death in what the intelligence community suggests was a chemical attack unleashed on rebel strongholds by the government. In addition to the dead, more than 6 million people have been forced from their homes by the fighting.

Termanini, who has lived in and practiced medicine in the United States since 1986, makes no secret of his pro-rebel sympathies, saying President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is “trying to terrorize people into submission … but the people are very resilient.”

He tells tales of a nation where, if someone in government doesn’t like you or considers you to be a threat, you can be snatched off the streets and taken to secret prisons and tortured, a nation where the government will attack hospitals to prevent them from treating rebels.

One of his most heartbreaking memories, he said, was meeting the mother of a young man who had been detained by security forces.

“She knows her son was probably killed, he’s been missing probably a year now and she saw some videos of him being tortured,” he said. “But she never expected anyone to come in and help, and she started crying profusely, we couldn’t stop her (tears).”

Then there was the 8-year-old boy flashing a “V” sign to the camera even though bombs had left him with stumps for legs, and the 19-year-old woman being wheeled to one of the hospitals with a head injury suffered during an airstrike that claimed the lives of her 3- and 4-year-old daughters.

And, there’s the near-term baby who was shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet at a crossing while still in its mother’s belly. The mother survived, but the baby did not.

In recent weeks, the world community has been horrified by reports that chemical weapons were dropped in rebel-held areas. The Syrian government acknowledges launching the attacks but denies using chemical weapons, though reports from medical personnel on the ground insist that the dead had no visible wounds and had, in fact, suffered severe respiratory distress and other effects symptomatic of chemical poisoning.

He said the people of Syria don’t have many options.

“You can live in a government-controlled area, where life is worth nothing, and you can be attacked, kidnapped by intelligence persons,” he said. “You cannot express your views. Even if you’re innocent, even if you’re not involved in politics, if somebody doesn’t like you or you’re mistaken for someone else, you can spend months in jail with no trace.

“On the other hand, if you live in a liberated area, which is probably 50 percent of Syria, you’re living with danger, constant danger. It’s unpredictable: It can be air strikes, and they don’t have to be very sophisticated – they have what’s called TNT barrels, you can imagine what those are. They drop them from helicopters. They’re common, because they’re the cheapest way of causing damage, and they can happen anytime, any minute. Then you have the chemical attacks, the SCUD missiles and shelling.”

He points out the Syrian government has about 300,000 intelligence officers controlling a population of about 24 million, “so they’re everywhere.”

“The chemical attack only killed 1,400 people, compared to 120,000 (estimated deaths to date in the war),” Termanini said. “More than 8,000 (political prisoners) died after being tortured for days and months, then their bodies were delivered, mutilated, to their families. I think most people would prefer a chemical attack to being tortured.”

Termanini has no doubts that world intervention is needed.

“I think airstrikes would be very beneficial, whether they’re limited or widescale,” he said. “I believe until the regime feels a serious threat from the international community, they’re not going to negotiate, they’re not going to stand down or compromise. The only way to displace them is by force … I believe a cruise missile by the U.S. or NATO can shorten the life of this regime.”

As a medical professional with strong beliefs about the conflict, Termanini figures his name is on the Syrian government list because of his relief work, so he can only travel in Rebel-held areas. So far he’s distributed five large shipping containers filled with medical equipment and supplies, as well as winter clothes, toys and bikes to people living in rebel-held areas.

“People have great hearts,” he said. “When we asked for help, I didn’t expect to get all those winter items and toys. I just put the situation to employees and stuff kept pouring in, I had to go back and forth to my home, where we were keeping the donations, several times every day. It was amazing, the support (we received).”

Between 20 percent and 25 percent of the clothing and toys came from Trinity Health System employees, he said. Likewise, Trinity itself donated a host of hospital beds, cardiac monitors, defibrillaters, wheelchairs, operating room beds and operating room lights. Termanini said they were able to equip operating rooms to standard at two different hospitals as a result of Trinity’s largesse.

“Trinity helped us a lot, tremendously, for no return,” he said. “They didn’t ask for anything. They helped us, they loaded stuff and opened their heart and their storage space for us.”

While much of the equipment they took was outdated by U.S. standards, in a country torn apart by civil war any equipment, even if it’s not the most up-to-date, is “a lifesaver,” he points out. “They can benefit from anything.”

He said one of the hospitals he helped equip has already been attacked. The air attack killed 15, but missed the hospital, he said.

Much of the children’s clothing and bicycles was given to children orphaned by the war. He said the Syrian American Medical Society’s Pittsburgh chapter is sponsoring 27 of them, providing money each month to care for them.

He said collecting toys and bikes for Syrian kids was a labor of love.

“We wanted to put a smile on their faces because they’ve suffered a lot,” he said. “They’ve lost their childhood, it’s been two, two-and-a-half years.”

Termanini has offices in Steubenville, Wellsburg, Follansbee, Cadiz and East Liverpool.