26 Mar 2013

Syria: ‘It’s just getting worse and worse’

I’ve been here before. So has the UN. And we’ve been there together. Last year, the by-pass north of Homs on the road to Aleppo. This year a small town just north of Damascus.

Last year, the UN “ceasefire” monitors. This year the UN World Food Programme.

Last year I remember an Irish UN “ceasefire” monitor diving out of his soft-skin UN jeep and rushing over to our (just as soft-skin) van and saying: “Did you see that? One round came in just then – happening more and more around here.” We were just east of al-Rastan, a town noted then as now for heavy fighting and a stronghold of the rebel militias.

“That’s it lads, I’m afraid. Mission’s off for today and we’re back to base.”

Not long after that New York recognised what our young Irish officer had known for months: there was no ceasefire to monitor, the UN were becoming targets and soon the entire “ceasefire” mission was off and out of the country, never mind one morning’s patrol east of al-Rastan.

Spool forward less than a year and now it is the World Food Programme (WFP) and other UN agencies working here – or rather not being able to work here any more.

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This time we were just north of Damascus and plans to move on with touring food distribution centres came to an abrupt halt when fighting broke out on the road between our location and the capital a few miles distant.

“It’s just getting worse and worse, ” Kate Newton, WFP’s deputy here told, me as we waited at the roadside. “There is just more fighting in more areas and it is getting increasingly difficult for us to move around.”

Right now, 1,300 tonnes of desperately needed food aid, donated by the outside world, lies in a warehouse in north Damascus. Shells have comes through the roof. The other day somebody helpfully put an IED in the place (improvised explosive device or home-made bomb to you and I). The Syrian army won’t let the UN near the place. The UN probably couldn’t or wouldn’t attempt it anyway and who can blame them?

And it is not just the question of getting food moved: “There’s a large group of IDPs (internally displaced people) in the north of the city,” Kate Newton explained, “and they’re basically living in an unfinished building site. The provision of water and electricity there is virtually non-existent.”

Again it is deemed too dangerous for the UN to access this area. When we offer to go on our own, it’s pointed out our cleverly-limited government filming permit won’t allow us into this area. Show the paper to the first checkpoint you come to upon approach and they will politely turn you around.

Wanna argue with jumpy soldiers and Kalashnikovs? Me neither.

Partly, of course, the government does not want the world to see people living in these kind of conditions which, for now, we can only guess at. They want to show you the best provision they have in clean, electrically-lit, running water and sewerage-served city-centre IDP shelters with everything from daily meals to the provision of psychological counselling for children (and adults) suffering the cumulative effects of living close to, and sometime in, prolonged urban warfare.

However, now that half the foreign UN staff are being pulled out after mortars landed close to their hotel and half their local staff are being asked to “work form home” (whatever that means here…), life just got that bit tougher even for those lucky ones in the good shelters.

Life for those in the “building site”, just like the state of all that food sitting in the warehouse beyond reach, can only be guessed at. So the exodus from today of UN foreign staff simply means that the war just encroached that bit further into the Syrian capital.

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