11 Oct 2012

The struggle to bring aid to desperate Syria

As winter approaches, life is going to get a whole lot worse for Syrians. Already, 300,000 have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and by the end of this year the UN expects that number to swell to 700,000.

More than a million are sleeping in stadia, schools and other public buildings inside Syria because their homes have been destroyed or are right in the middle of the conflict zone. Yet it’s very hard for humanitarian agencies to reach those who need help.

“We have extremely limited access,” said Ben Parker, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA), in Damascus. “Only now we are slowly getting a presence in the field.” Speaking at the Frontline Club last night, he gave a vivid picture of how difficult it is to operate in government-controlled parts of Syria.

“There’s a suspicion that the entire humanitarian effort is a trojan horse for military intervention,” he said. He’s constantly trying to explain to government officials that, “we don’t care what happened to the clinic or who did it, but we’d like to fix it.”

Any field trip takes hours or days of negotiation. Plain clothes security officials lurk as aid workers interview people to find out what’s happened, and what’s needed.

“Pulling out a clipboard can mean your day ends very badly,” said Parker. “There are all these people taking notes about you taking notes. It’s best to have a good memory.” The work is dangerous too as fighting may erupt at any time.


For months the Syrian government wouldn’t admit anything was wrong – the word “crisis” was banned. Even now, they don’t like to refer to “displaced people”, preferring the euphemism “moving people.” It’s partly pride – many Syrians find it hard to accept that their country, which was relatively well off, is now a recipient of aid. In the past, it manufactured 93 per cent of the medicine used – now, as the economy falters, they’re likely to need to import even basic drugs. But the government also wants to cover up its own responsibility for the people’s suffering.

As part of the the UN, OCHA has to work with the authorities. “We have to go in through the door, not the window,” said Parker.  Some accuse them of appeasement, but aid going into rebel controlled areas will never reach all those in need.

“We are interested in toilets, jerry-cans and blankets not who’s to blame,” said Parker.

As the war grows messier, more complex and more difficult  to resolve, Syrians will suffer more and the need for humanitarian aid will grow greater. According to Hicham Hassan of the International Committee of the Red Cross, their priority now is treating the injured as so many people are wounded by bombing and shelling every day. But aid will never solve the basic problem, which is the conflict. As Hicham Hassan said last night, “The problem is not humanitarian, the problem is political.”

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