Syrians volunteering in a "Medical Battalion" risk their lives to save the wounded

(CBS News) IDLIB, Syria - For Syria's rebels fighting in the civil war, there is little to no formal medical care on the battlefield. A CBS News crew got a rare interview with one of the ad-hoc medical teams filling the void.

Driving an ambulance they seized from the Syrian government, a small group of volunteers are on a dangerous mission, speeding past Syrian military positions to reach rebel fighters. They asked for anonymity for fear that the Syrian government will punish their families.

Syria's government claims gains in Aleppo
Syrian troops shell Aleppo neighborhoods
Maj. Gen. Mood: Syria regime could crumble soon

They call themselves the "Medical Battalion," but even the most senior member of the team, who goes by the name Shamil, isn't a doctor. He was about to graduate from medical school when he arrested by the government for helping the opposition. In Syria now, an "almost-doctor" is better than no doctor at all.

"I know if we didn't help the people, who can help?" Shamil said. "This is our job, my job, so I must help."

The volunteers have set up a string of makeshift clinics and, crucially, a communication network. The men have given out radios to different towns and people call when they have a problem.

"We go there. Like [the town] Kafar a Takharim," Shamil said.

syria, wounded, boy, medical battalion, medics
A boy wounded in the fighting in Syria is treated by the volunteer "Medical Battalion"
CBS News

When fierce fighting broke out in that town two weeks ago, the medical battalion carried out as many of the wounded as they could. Many were children caught in the cross fire. Many of them didn't make it.

Abu Assad trained as a veterinarian before joining the volunteer medics. He said the sights and sounds of war have dried his tears.

When asked if he no longer gets emotional, Abu Assad responded: "Inside myself, if I think of the situation of my country of my people, we can't stop cry, I have to cry. We try, we try to stop but we can't."

So they don't stop. One day, the mission was to deliver these emergency medical kits to rebel fighters in the area. They used back roads and stopped when locals warned them that Syrian government tanks had blocked the road ahead. The team took shelter in a local home and prayed.

They are building makeshift clinics as fast as they can smuggle supplies across the border with Turkey, but there is one shortage that they can't overcome.

"We need doctors, especially surgical doctors," Shamil said, adding that it was difficult to find them because a lot of them are scared.

For now, the best they can do is to spend a few minutes teaching first aid before getting back on the dangerous road to the next village.

(At Left: Watch Charlie D'Agata report from inside Syria where Rebels have seized tanks and weapons from a government outpost Northwest of Aleppo)

In the midst of this vicious civil war, a lone ambulance offers people some hope for a better future.

A lot of civilians are being treated by these rebel medics. That's one of the major challenges they face. They're not just looking to treat wounded rebel fighters, they're looking to provide an almost alternative health care system for all civilians who are living in rebel-held territory and who do not have access to government-run hospitals.

  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News