27 Nov 2013

Syria’s politics are infecting its humanitarian crisis

I asked the little girl in the green velour tracksuit what life was like in Barzeh, the besieged suburb of Damascus which used to be her home.

“There was fighting and shelling all the time,” she said. “And I didn’t have friends to play with.”

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Maybe her parents wouldn’t let her play in the street because of the danger that a mortar would fall. Maybe other families had already left the suburb for somewhere safer. Last year her family fled to the neighbouring area, which is still under government control.

I met her in a noisy after-school class for displaced kids. They were as lively and giggly as any bunch of eight-year-olds anywhere in the world, but these children had witnessed terrible things in their home areas.

“There was no life there, everything was dead, ” said a little boy. “All the people there were mourning their children who had been killed.”

The cycle of misery in the Middle East has moved round. The centre where I met the children was established in 2008 for refugees who had fled from Iraq. Now the Iraqis have gone back home, because Syria is even more dangerous.

The UN estimates that fighting has forced 8 million Syrians out of their homes. Two million have fled over the borders, but 6 million have remained in Syria, sleeping in the houses of friends or relatives, or packed into mosques, schools and community halls.

At least the UN and non-governmental organisations can help those who have been displaced into central Damascus. The government is refusing access to rebel-held suburbs surrounding the capital. Over the summer, people survived by growing vegetables but they can’t do that in the winter.

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“It’s like the Romans when they cut water and food supply to make a town surrender,” said Khaled Erksoussi, Operations Manager for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Both sides, he believes, use humanitarian aid for political gain.

His proudly neutral organisation negotiates agreements with the government and rebel commanders but often Red Crescent volunteers living in communities on either side of the many frontlines have to persuade whoever holds sway to let aid in.

“Sometimes it comes down to the guy on the checkpoint,” said Mr Erksoussi. “He says: ‘those people inside killed my brother, my father, my mother, I will never let you deliver food to the people who are shooting me’.”

This morning President Assad’s political advisor Bouthaina Shabaan denied that the regime was using food as a weapon. The blame, she told me, lay entirely with Al Qaeda backed ‘terrorists’ who were fighting the government.

“No-one loves the Syrian people more than we do,” she said.

Those struggling to survive in areas besieged by government forces might find that very hard to believe. All wars are cruel, but in Syria neither side is showing mercy.

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