CAIRO (Reuters) - Before doctors can treat the steady stream of casualties brought to their makeshift hospital in Tahrir Square, they must first treat themselves for the effects of the tear gas which fills the air.
Providing medical support to the youths confronting the Egyptian security forces just down the road is a dangerous business: three of the volunteer doctors have been killed in the violence, said Tareq Salem, one of the doctors at work in the clinic late on Wednesday.
“They were fresh graduates,” he said, splashing his face with saline fluid to counter the effects of the latest barrage of gas. One died of suffocation, the other two of bullet wounds sustained while assessing injuries outside, he said.
The stench of tear gas in the clinic is at times as bad as on the nearby frontline, where youths armed with chunks of paving stone again confronted security forces on Wednesday, the sixth day of a protest against Egypt’s ruling military council.
At least once a day, a canister lands right in the clinic, set up in a mosque forecourt in a narrow alleyway; a confined space where the gas lingers.
“We’ve improved the service from day one,” Salem said, drying his face even as another waft of tear gas forced everyone to reach for their gas masks.
The hospital amounts to little more than blankets spread on the ground. Treatment areas are cordoned off with tape. Donated medical supplies are stacked high.
“Welcome to hell,” said one volunteer at the entrance.
Some of the doctors wore gas masks. Others covered their faces with surgical masks not up to the task of protecting against the gas.
“We get two to three to casualties per minute,” said Salem. “Sixty to 70 percent are suffocation, the rest are pellets or bullets,” he said.
While some leave within minutes, there have been of fatalities. Salem said four people died in the hospital on Wednesday, two from suffocation and two from bullet wounds.
Their bodies were taken away in ambulances which must navigate through the crowds in Tahrir square to extract the corpses and those seriously wounded.
A dozen doctors buzzed around treating around 20 casualties. One medic armed with a megaphone instructed people to clear the way as the latest casualty was brought in unconscious. Another volunteer grabbed an oxygen tank to treat a case of suffocation.
The doctors are deeply concerned by the effects of the gas fired in the last few days.
“We are seeing serious convulsions,” said Salem. Behind him, a casualty displayed just the symptoms he was describing. From his pocket, Salem pulled a handwritten note detailing the ingredients of “CS gas”, one of the types being used.
Many of the gas canisters collected by the activists are unmarked, fuelling speculation that more sinister weapons have been used. The military council on Wednesday denied the security forces had used anything poisonous.
Another concern is that some of the gas fired is out of date. One spent canister seen by Reuters appeared to show a production date of 2001, suggesting it had been used after its five-year shelf life.
Salem said the doctors were determined to stay until the end to help their compatriots in what they describe as a struggle to complete Egypt’s revolution for freedom. “Nobody wants to leave,” he said. “We will stay here until it’s over.”