In a secret location in the Lebanese capital, a 60-bed hospital treats ISIS and other Islamic extremists whose backers must pay cash in advance. Enemies share doctors where medicine is a blind business, and cash is king.
BEIRUT — When George Chamus* comes into the operating theater, he looks first at his patient's legs. Shattered shinbones, festering wounds, badly healed dying tissue. Chamus is a surgeon in Lebanon, one of the best in his field, and complicated breaks are his specialty. And word has gotten around, in Syria too. After looking at the legs, Chamus looks at the face. It's a young man with a beard, a full beard with only the part between the upper lip and the nose shaved. Then the doctor knows: Before him lies another fighter from the ISIS terror militia.
It's not just civilians who flee Syrian war zones to seek protection in Lebanon. Severely wounded ISIS fighters are smuggled from the front into the neighboring country when the field hospitals in Syria can do nothing more to help them. Lebanon has accepted more Syrians than any other country, but there are no official camps for the refugees. They are dispersed across the nation. The situation is chaotic: Many require help, many provide help, but nobody has an overview of who is committed to whom. This means that Lebanon is full of secret activity.
Transportation from Syrian field hospitals to the emergency rooms in the neighboring country is handled by aid organizations about which little is known. They also pay for the cost of care rather like a health insurance entity for jihadists. Where these organizations are headquartered and who runs them is unclear. They can easily cover their tracks amid Lebanon's confusion. There are indications, however, that the money comes from the Gulf states.
Qatar, the ISIS financier
Chamus believes he knows exactly who is paying for the 16,000-euro operation on a shattered shinbone that he is going to perform this morning. "The money comes from Qatar," he says. It takes Chamus several hours to perform the operation. When the fighters leave the operating theater, they spend a few days recovering at the hospital.
The doctor's prognosis for today's patient is that he will walk again, but with a limp. His minimum goal for his patients is to spare the young men life in a wheelchair. They are mostly aged between 20 and 22, and some are still teenagers. But they are also terrorists whose barbaric brutality is feared the world over. The slaughter in Syria and Iraq, the horrific acts they commit, are a declaration of war on the whole world.
Should he be healing such brutes? "As a doctor, you have to help everyone," he says. Even when the help is just prolonging the war? "Yes and no," says Chamus. One thing to bear in mind: "After the patients leave the hospital they are no longer apt for frontline fighting."
As a doctor, he sees the wound, the pain, the suffering first. Only after that does he see the person. How much pain and suffering this patient has inflicted on others is not something he has the luxury of considering. He doesn't know how many fighters he's treated. "We're not the only ones who provide care for the fighters," he says.
The hospital director is a determined woman with black hair and alert eyes. Her two phones ring incessantly. Mona Shalub* is sitting in her office in front of a large window, and at the end of her phone conversation she notices that she's forgotten to offer her visitor coffee. This embarrasses her. At her large, neat desk, she handles the finances. Only people who can pay receive care. "Up front," she adds smiling. She knows every patient and their medical file, and financing poses an ethical problem for her — particularly when terrorists are being treated in her clinic.
Medicine is just another business
The money for ISIS fighters is paid just as it is with other patients: promptly and in cash. A representative of the aid organization delivers an envelope. When asked where the money comes from, she replies, "From Qatar or Saudi Arabia."
The small, natural gas-rich emirate of Qatar is under permanent suspicion of supporting ISIS financially, but nothing has been proved to date. The emirate also pays for part of the Lebanese army and for building entire areas for the Shia Hezbollah militia, even though Hezbollah sides with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who in turn is fighting Qatar-financed Sunni rebels. The use of billions in gas money is a contradiction in itself.
"Medicine is not political," Shalub says. "You help people, not their political outlook." She conducts a tour of the premises with pride. It's a nice hospital with modern operating theaters, and the elevator works, which is never a given in Lebanon. Shalub points to the rooms in which there are Sunni ISIS fighters. The doors are ajar, and there are bearded men inside. "If they only knew," Shalub says, chuckling, "that there are Hezbollah fighters on the other side of the wall."
In the Syrian war, Lebanon's Shia militia is also fighting ISIS. "We make sure not to put them in rooms together," the director says, barely able to contain her laughter. War humor. Enemies from Syrian battlefields together in a hospital with 60 beds, with the same casts, the same bandages on their battered extremities, being looked after by the same doctors. All wounds are equal in war.
ISIS and Hezbollah are among the worst terror militias in the Middle East. Why does Shalub tolerate the presence of their fighters in her hospital? Her reply is brief. "Business," she says. Nevertheless, if it were to become known where exactly this hospital was located, chances are good that somebody would blow it up. There are certainly enough groups that would like to. "But fear," says the clinic director, "is not something we Lebanese can afford."
She fears neither bombs nor the hospital's patients. "They're little boys," she says, wounded and woundable. "Push them and they keel right over." Mona Shalub and Chamus laugh and sound almost tender. "They're quieter than other patients," Chamus says.
Other patients scream more often, but the ISIS fighters are mostly silent. "That's possibly also because when they arrive here, they're pumped full of pain relievers." They are traumatized, severely wounded junkies. "When they're brought here, there's no sign of life in their eyes," Shalub says. "After a couple of days, you get a glimmer. They are grateful."
Burying body parts
Sometimes Chamus can't mend a jihadist's bones, so he has to amputate the leg. In this case ISIS fighters are entitled to an additional service. The aid organization sends a man to wait in front of the operating room, where the amputated leg, wrapped in cloth, is handed over to him.
He carries it in a taxi that takes him back to Syria, where the leg is buried in a place of the fighter's choice. The ritual is in line with an Islamic belief that the body parts of an individual should be buried in one and the same place even if it is years before the body parts are reunited.
So the fighters assume that after their death they will be buried in the place where their leg is. Chamus says that sometimes the doctors and nurses in the operating theater joke about that. It seems absurd when the chances are pretty good that a bomb will destroy their body, and there will be nothing left to bury. "Why go to that much trouble for a destroyed leg when the person is probably going to end up as mincemeat?"
Then again in Lebanon they've long gotten used to the absurd.
*The names have been changed to protect their identities.