Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Syria’s first line of defence

As the violence continues in Syria, the country’s civil society is coming together to bring vital assistance to the wounded, writes Franklin Lamb in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

There are more than 9,000 of them, predominately young, but also of all ages. All of them volunteers, and often risking their lives just to come for a 12-hour work-shift, as many as seven days a week, at the Syrian Arab Republic Red Crescent Society (SARCS) Emergency Operations Centre.

Located at the New Zahera Hospital in Damascus just to the south of the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, SARCS is a main emergency response team HQ. It is here that Syrians, some Palestinians, and even a few from the region and the West, receive training as qualified paramedics. Maybe two-thirds of those this observer spent a day with some time ago are students or graduates. Nationalists all, and in the main, but not all of them, supporting the government, they are sympathetic towards whoever may be able to end the killing and return life to something like normality.

In the main room of the centre, volunteers take phone calls, and as they speak they stare at a large computer screen that shows a Google Earth close-up view of the areas where emergency responders are urgently needed. Some of the volunteers, being tech-savvy, have outlined and regularly update with a green line the most recent safe routes that ambulances should take. The dispatchers get input from police, neighbours, even troops, and others also advise them on which streets are currently relatively safe for travel. Periodic snipers are a fact of life for the responders whenever they are on mission.

One shift manager said that one thing the operations room really wants to help with the work is something he called “Google Live”, which can track activity as it happens. His team has two problems as it tries to secure this capability. One problem is that Google Live is forbidden by the US-led sanctions. But frankly, his team could not care less, and it already knows how to hack into something to secure it. The main problem is that the team needs Syrian government approval to set up Google Live, which it is hoping to get soon. This capability will help the SARCS emergency teams get to their destinations faster and more safely.

The centre is an exciting beehive of activity, staffed by friendly people urgently working to help others, all dressed in bright orange overalls plainly marked with “SARCS” in red letters. The centre’s dozen ambulances and other vehicles are also thus marked. The reason? To emphatically distinguish them from the other rescue vehicles operated by the Syrian ministry of health. The reason this is important is because the rebels do not hesitate to target ministry ambulances, whereas the rebel Al-Nusra Front and others insist that the SARCS ambulances will not be targeted. The day the Yarmouk Refugee Camp was bombed three weeks ago, leaving many dead and three times the number wounded, SARCS ambulances raced into the Camp and pulled out 30 victims in half a day.

Volunteers said that the reason their vehicles were rather less likely to be targeted was that the SARCS strictly complies with the Hippocratic Oath and keeps politics out of its work as best it can. As this observer witnessed several times first-hand, when an emergency call comes in on the 133 line, the dispatcher asks only for the location and injury assessment if available, employing a red, yellow and green system. No questions are asked about whether the victim is pro or anti-government, or about his or her sect, nationality, or political affiliation. If the victim has a weapon, the ambulance driver instructs friends of the victim at the scene to take it, as no weapons are allowed on the stretcher or in SARCS vehicles. When giving medical care, it is prohibited for SARCS volunteers to inquire about political views or details of the circumstances surrounding the injury.

An observer might conclude that this is one of the reasons why the SARCS emergency response teams have won the trust of Syrians and NGOs, which by Syrian law are obliged to work with and consult with other departments of the SARCS, such as disaster management, to get international aid as fast as possible to where it is most needed.

There are places the emergency vehicles cannot go and times when they cannot operate. More than four dozen SARCS volunteers have been reportedly killed or injured while performing their humanitarian work. However, every bombing and disaster in Syria these days brings more applications to join the SARCS volunteer teams: such is the character of the Syrian people, an amalgam of their history, culture, Arab nationalism and resistance stance.

Current shortages of emergency services in Syria include medicines, medical equipment, fuel, food boxes, blankets and cooking utensils. Some of these shortages are the direct and foreseeable result of the US-led sanctions, which are daily targeting the civilian population of Syria in the hope that riots by the cold, malnourished and suffering civilian population will cause the government of Syria to falter and the western goal of regime change will follow. Yet, as the history of sanctions targeting civilian populations makes plain, these inhumane sanctions fail in their political objectives and simply engender the wrath of the civilian population to the political benefit of the government in power.

As current events are demonstrating, the designers of the US-led sanctions, housed on the second floor of the US Treasury Building in Washington DC, including the US Office of Financial Assets Control, have once more failed to understand the nature and quality of the Syrian people.

One wonders if the same process unfolding over the past few weeks, whereby foreign interests may now be realising that they have committed major “assessment errors” in Syria and are reportedly reassessing their objectives, may now also see them willing to come to the negotiating table, which currently holds four serious proposals for discussion.

Only the presence of those currently absent from the dialogue is needed to end the killing and start rebuilding homes, hospitals and infrastructure of every kind, along with the equally essential democratic freedoms for everyone in Syria. The Syrian population and the Syrian Arab Republic Red Crescent Society emergency responders are waiting, the latter doing life-saving national and humanitarian work for their country and for anyone calling their emergency response line.

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