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Syria: gap widens between needs and response

19-04-2013 Interview

Robert Mardini, ICRC head of operations for the Near & Middle East recently spent four days in Syria, mainly in Damascus and Homs. He shares his observations and explains the challenges that the ICRC team faces.

How do you read the humanitarian situation in Syria today?

It’s getting worse. Civilians are killed or injured daily. Thousands are detained or missing. Four million people have had to leave their homes, with more fleeing daily. Our teams in places like Homs, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo and Idlib speak of the despair of people displaced time and time again as front lines shift.

I met a woman in Homs who was living in a school with her family. They fled the fighting in Baba Amr a year ago. Then they managed to go back, repair their flat and live there until fighting erupted again three weeks ago. A mortar bomb hit her home and they had to leave again. She told me: "We’re exhausted. We can’t take any more. My children are suffering psychological problems, my husband has lost his job and it’s so difficult to depend totally on aid."

The economic situation is worsening. Many people no longer have an income.

Attacks on medical facilities and personnel continue, despite our repeated calls for parties to respect the basic rules of war. There are widespread reports of patients being arrested inside hospitals, reprisals against doctors and nurses and the targeting and misuse of ambulances. The pattern is widespread and of grave concern.

What about security? What was it like visiting places like Homs?

Fighting is intensifying. Many Syrian colleagues living in Damascus told me that nowhere in Syria is safe anymore. Damascus was relatively safe until recently, but has recently witnessed a wave of violence.

Deteriorating security is affecting our team in Syria. The area next to our offices in Damascus has experienced heavy shelling. Many of our staff and their relatives living in rural Damascus had to flee the fighting, leaving everything behind. Our warehouse in Adra on the outskirts of Damascus was shelled three weeks ago. We are constantly reminded of the daily suffering of the Syrian people and our staff share this suffering.

In Homs, I saw how the fighting is affecting densely populated areas like Baba Amr, Khaldiyed and Hamidiyeh in the old city and Qusair, with destruction of property and infrastructure adding to the misery.

A firefight broke out on the main road from Homs as we were heading back along it into the centre of Damascus. And this is a road that our teams considered relatively safe.

What are the challenges you face?

The few days I spent in Syria demonstrated the incredible complexity of carrying out humanitarian operations in the country. The most daunting constraints are the lack of security, the fluidity of front lines and the multiplicity of armed actors, who include government security forces and various armed opposition groups. Administrative hurdles and excessive controls add an additional layer of complexity, with ICRC aid arriving from Amman and Beirut experiencing frequent delays.

The unpredictability of the fighting demands more agility in the humanitarian response. We have to keep our teams in the field for longer periods, and we must set up additional warehouses and find alternative routes.

Despite heavy fighting, the number of ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams working in hotspots has risen over the past four months.

Since November 2012, we have carried out 11 cross-line operations, helping civilians on both sides of the front lines. On three occasions, we convinced both parties to allow a humanitarian pause, during which we could deliver much-needed humanitarian aid. We are also sending daily convoys across the country to help thousands of displaced people. The latest visit of our team to Deir Ezzor 10 days ago was a reminder of how acute needs are in densely populated areas where the conflict has disrupted basic services. This confirmed the need to repeat visits, so we can deliver medical supplies and food, in both government-controlled and opposition-controlled areas. Our visits to towns where fighting continues reveal major water and sanitation problems. In some parts of Aleppo, for instance, the accumulation of rubbish may well cause epidemics as summer approaches. ICRC water engineers and SARC volunteers are working with water boards and communities in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Damascus to ensure an uninterrupted supply of drinking water and the safe disposal of waste.

These are encouraging results but there is a growing gap between humanitarian needs and the actual response. I have come back from Syria convinced that we can and must expand our operations in the coming weeks and months. Both the ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent are committed to overcoming the constraints, ranging from security problems to bureaucratic hurdles. We will build on our increasing presence in the most sensitive regions, including those under opposition control, by engaging with all sides.

What about visits to people in custody? Did you discuss this during your visit?

Of course, this issue remains one of our top priorities in Syria. We have carried out two visits since 2011, to central prisons in Aleppo and Damascus. This was a first step, but it is clearly insufficient in view of the needs today. We only have limited access to detainees, which means that there is no independent monitoring of their situation. This would be worrying in any armed conflict, but it is a serious concern in Syria. During my meeting at the foreign ministry, I reiterated our request for the authorities to implement the plan for visits to several prisons over the coming weeks, based on the commitment they had made and reconfirmed to me. We must resume prison visits right now, in order to ensure effective monitoring of detainee conditions and treatment.


Photos

Robert Mardini, head of operations for the Near and Middle East.  

Robert Mardini, head of operations for the Near and Middle East.
© ICRC

Deir Al Zor, Syria. Street lined with damaged buildings. 

Deir Al Zor, Syria.
Street lined with damaged buildings.
© Reuters / K. Ashawi

Raqqa province, eastern Syria. People flee the violence. 

Raqqa province, eastern Syria.
People flee the violence.
© Reuters / N. Fourat

Al-Sukkari, Aleppo, Syria. A man carries a boy who was pulled out from under the rubble of a damaged area. 

Al-Sukkari, Aleppo, Syria.
A man carries a boy who was pulled out from under the rubble of a damaged area.
© Reuters / A. Hretani

Aleppo, Syria. Children wait to collect water. 

Aleppo, Syria.
Children wait to collect water.
© Reuters / G. Taha