Thursday,15 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Thursday,15 November, 2018
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Displaced and destitute in Syria

Fierce winter storms last week compounded the woes of Syria’s displaced, writes Bassel Oudat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The fierce winter storm that struck Syria and other parts of the Middle East last week threw into sharp relief the humanitarian plight of Syrians in their country and abroad. It also triggered a wave of Arab sympathy and solidarity.

Some 27 children died from the extreme cold. Some of these deaths occurred inside Syria, where there are at least six million displaced persons. Other deaths occurred in neighbouring countries, where there are at least five million refugees.

The humanitarian conditions for all these people are brutal and the international community and host countries have been unable to provide the minimum necessities for life.

Fierce blizzards swept Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan last week, leaving heavy blankets of snow and cutting off many roads. People caught outside on the roads were not the only victims.

Hundreds of crude tents collapsed on their inhabitants and many were carried off by the raging winds leaving countless people without shelter, as well as without food or medicines.

As hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians suffered from the cold, hunger and death of loved ones, the media of the regime in Damascus broadcast images of President Bashar Al-Assad smiling at the white blanket in front of his home. There were other images of him with his wife and children frolicking in the snow.

The images seemed designed to add insult to injury, not just to the refugees, but also to most ordinary Syrians who are not much better off. Many towns and cities have been cut off from the rest of the world, and not only due to the blocked roads. Electricity and phone lines have also come down.

The regime is oblivious and is even taking a malicious glee at the general plight, judging by state media, which appears to be saying, “This is the freedom that you asked for.”

But the Syrian opposition has not offered much help, as is the case with countries hosting refugees. The UN, which has had difficulties extending aid, recently announced that it would reduce it by a half.

Some Arab countries sent in urgent relief to cover part of the growing needs of the displaced people, while NGOs have struggled to supply as much housing, food, medication and fuel as possible. Volunteer doctors treat the ill and conduct urgent operations, often having to improvise in the absence of the conditions of modern medicine.

The regime deliberately targeted hospitals in urban and rural parts of the country, destroying around 75 per cent of the country’s health centres, according to the World Health Organisation. Many doctors and nurses have been killed and even more were arrested for having provided medical treatment to opposition members.

Some 65 per cent of the country’s pharmaceutical factories have stopped working after being targeted for bombardment or plunder. As a result, there is a drastic shortage in medicines and the prices of available ones have soared, especially when compared to average purchasing power. Incomes have dropped to around 75 per cent of their levels four years ago because of inflation and the falling value of the Syrian currency.

Dr Mamoun Sayyid Eissa is a Syrian opposition health official responsible for nearly 60 refugee camps located in areas controlled by the opposition. More than 100,000 displaced persons live in the camps.

In interview with Al-Ahram Weekly Eissa said that a third of those who are sick do not receive treatment. “The Syrians in the [liberated] areas can cover only 25 per cent of their medical requirements,” he said. “They do not have sufficient resources to cover the mounting needs.”

He continued: “There are only 17 medical centres for 57 camps and only one of these operates 24 hours a day. They are served by only five ambulances. There are a total of 33 doctors, which is to say three doctors per 10,000 refugees. There is no medical lab or dental clinic.

“About half of camp residents do not receive necessary vaccines. Most of them obtain a quarter of a loaf of bread per meal. There are 6,000 children in the camps inside Syria who are at risk of death due to malnutrition.”

Conditions are not much better for urban and rural inhabitants elsewhere in the country. Most of the areas controlled by the opposition suffer shortages of every necessity: fuel, water, food, electricity and heating.

In the capital, frequent electricity cuts last from four to 20 hours a day. Drinking water does not reach many areas in the suburbs. The prices of all goods have risen by 300 to 500 per cent in the past four years and, according to international reports, 14 million Syrians now live below the poverty line and five million suffer extreme poverty.

Syrians fled the flames of war only to find themselves without a roof over their heads, exposed to bitter cold, fatal diseases and excruciating pain. The regime has given them nothing. It claims it is protecting them from “terrorist gangs” and on these grounds it has bombarded their homes and villages, leaving them prey to all the adversities of homelessness.

The UN has failed to furnish even half of the Syrians’ needs. It says that it does not have the material resources needed to supply the necessary relief. Syrian opposition leaders, for the most part, ignore the pressing needs of the displaced people at home because of their focus on internal power struggles and personal gain.

On the lack of support from the opposition and the international community, Syrian opposition member Fawaz Tallo told the Weekly: “A quarter of the funds that the UN receives for Syrian refugees goes to administrative expenses, another quarter gets lost due to corruption, a third quarter is distributed on the basis of sectarian or regional criteria as dictated by the regime or it is distributed in accordance with the agendas of donor countries or countries hosting refugees. For the most part, the criteria are not fair.”

Refugees in the liberated areas receive virtually no portion of this aid, Tallo stressed. “The refugees in the surrounded areas obtain nothing. The refugees in the areas occupied by the regime receive 20 per cent of the relief that comes into Syria under the supervision of the regime. The regime keeps the remaining 80 per cent for its supporters, in spite of the recent UN resolution.”

“The Syrian opposition coalition offers limited amounts of aid,” Eissa said. “The flow is often interrupted and subject to personal whims and, sometimes, designs. Only a small portion of the declared amount reaches its destination. Urgent action needs to be taken to solve the problems of the refugees and displaced persons. They are the victims of grave injustices.

“Their houses were destroyed, their family members were killed. They experienced the nightmares of living under the barrages of missile fire, barrel bombs and cluster bombs. They fled to the camps in search of safety, but instead of safety, food or dignity they found abject poverty, need and degradation.”

In spite of the overwhelmingly grim circumstances there sometimes appears a glimmer of light that inspires hope. Often independent opposition activists unaffiliated with any particular political group launch drives to collect money to buy wood or other heating fuel for the refugees, or clothes, even used clothing, for the homeless children. They also circulate appeals for milk, medicines, blankets, heaters and tents to replace those that have fallen into tatters after four years of use.

The tragic plight of the Syrian refugees is not limited to health needs and physical conditions. According to international humanitarian organisations, about a million Syrian children have not received education, especially in the areas controlled by the regime, which constantly bombards schools.

There is also the problem of rampant unemployment. According to some figures, 75 per cent of the Syrian labour force is out of work due to the collapse of the Syrian economy, the destruction of factories, the interruption in exports and the halt in petroleum production.

At the same time, crime rates are soaring.

Kidnappings and theft have become especially rife in areas controlled by the regime, as well as corruption, the squandering of public funds, the threat of random arrest at any roadblock, or possibly death for revenge or for no reason at all at the hands of the regime’s militias, which are manning the hundreds of roadblocks in major cities.

Last week’s blizzards rounded out the picture of bleakness that Syrians face in their daily lives. They have been stripped of their dignity at home and abroad. Their appeals for help have fallen on deaf ears, or perhaps their cries have been carried away to oblivion by the stormy winds.

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