Syria: A Modern Humanitarian Failure
By: Raha Mirabdal
The Syrian crisis marks not only one of the bloodiest modern revolutions, but also one of the most blatant humanitarian failures for the international community. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that more than 45,000 individuals have been killed in the conflict; the majority of whom were civilians. Yet behind the statistics are thousands of tragic stories of innocent civilians, refugees and children caught in the crossfire. The inability of the international community to protect the innocent in this conflict stands as a monumental failure for the modern conception of human rights and international law.
Children of War
The toll on the children of Syria has been vast, with consequences likely to last over a generation. Many have been shot, kidnapped, tortured, injured or killed. Others have witnessed the deaths of their parents, siblings, or cousins. The trauma inflicted upon these children will have lasting effects on their psychological health, and will leave deep scars- both seen and unseen.
Save The Children, a children’s rights NGO, conducted a report titled Untold Atrocities, in which they gathered testimonies from Syrian children and families who are living through the crisis. According to Save the Children, nearly every child they interviewed had seen a family member or friend killed, and as a result will live the rest of their life with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. To make matters worse, nurses and doctors have not been properly trained to treat psychological trauma, resulting in improper care for children with trauma.
In a testimony provided to Save The Children, Razan, a mother from Karak, recounted the day she witnessed a young boy slowly die in the street as she was walking home. Soldiers had decided to use the 8-year old boy as a target for shooting practice. The shot to his head wasn’t a clear one. The young child lay in the street, dying slowly, as the soldiers tormented his mother who was watching from inside the house “you can’t get to your child, you can’t get to your child.” Razan watched as the mother screamed from inside the house, unable to reach her dying son. “There’s no way I can cope,” Razan explained, “no way I can turn over a new page. I have seen children slaughtered. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK again.” Stories similar to Razans have become far too common in Syria over the past 19 months.
According to War Child, an NGO focused on the effects of war on children around the world, Syrian children are deliberately being targeted in the conflict in an attempt to spark fear in the opposition. Rob Williams, the chief executive of War Child explained, “Children normally suffer in conflict as collateral damage: if there is war going on then children may be caught in the crossfire, in this particular conflict they have been deliberately targeted.”
Wael, a 16-year old refugee currently living in Za’atari, Jordan gave a testimony to Save the Children explaining the atrocities he witnessed after being arrested. “I knew a boy called Ala’a. He was only six years old. He didn’t understand what was happening. I’d say that six-year-old boy was tortured more than anyone else in the room. He wasn’t given food or water for three days, and he was so weak he used to faint all the time. He was beaten regularly. I watched him die. He only survived for three days and then he simply died. He was terrified all the time. They treated his body as though he was a dog.”
A Medical Failure
According to the World Health Organization, half of Syria’s 88 hospitals have been critically damaged; 23 of which are no longer operational. As a result, the remaining functional hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, and are facing shortages of supplies and staff. Over half of Syria’s doctors have fled the country, leaving the hospitals undermanned in a time of widespread medical need. There is such a desperate need for medical staff that there have been reports of veterinarians volunteering to treat injured patients.
The Assad regime has implemented a policy of denying medical aid to the opposition. As a result, loyalists to the regime have gone so far as to target wounded individuals en route to public hospitals. Opposition activists have smuggled much needed antibiotics, painkillers and medications for chronic conditions into rebel controlled territories within Syria, but at a high cost. Torture and death has been reported for those attempting to treat wounded rebels or provide them with medical supplies. Reports from inside Syria tell of doctors and nurses putting forth their own earnings in order to buy hospital equipment when activists are unable to deliver supplies. If no supplies are obtained, doctors are forced to conduct procedures without the necessary medications and equipment. With soaring fuel costs, doctors have been unable to perform required surgeries due to the lack of supplies in conflict areas.
Dr. Nassr, a spinal surgeon from the United States has been working with Syrian doctors and leading workshops in Syria, teaching new techniques to use while faced with limited supplies. Nassr explained, “There will be patients that will die that would not die in any civilized country, and it’s not because these are not good doctors; it’s because they don’t have the resources to take care of these patients, even the most basic things.”
Prior to the crisis, the eastern city of Deir Azzour was once a well functioning urban area, home to over 600,000 Syrians. Now, more than 10,000 poor and elderly Syrians are trapped in a city that is shelled and bombed daily, with nothing more than one makeshift hospital and four doctors. According to Doctors Without Borders, “Despite support from an organization of Syrian doctors, it is virtually impossible to obtain medical supplies in Deir Azzour.”
Patients living with chronic conditions are faced with increased difficulties in fighting their diseases given the dramatic shortages of medications available. Pharmacies are unable to keep up with the current demands, while black market costs of medications are extremely high.
Hanani, a cancer patient from Damascus has been unable to find the medication he needs in order to control his pain and slow his cancer. He has resorted to the black market for the medication, which costs him 5,000 Syrian pounds a month (70 USD)- half of his family’s entire monthly income. Without the medication, he will die a slow and painful death.
Amoon is a 60 year old woman suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes. Without access to her hypertension medication, Amoon’s diabetes progressed and as a result she developed a gangrenous toe which required immediate amputation. She is currently in dire need of insulin to control her diabetes, however, like Hanani, she cannot afford the black market prices and will likely continue to suffer as a result.
The crisis has not only caused suffering and devastation for millions of displaced Syrians, but has also been a source of frustration for doctors and healthcare workers. Healthcare workers continue to face deaths that could have easily been avoided with the help of modern technologies. Currently they are left unaided, overwhelmed and in constant danger in war torn areas. Patients are dying in the arms of doctors at increasing rates, despite their best efforts. For the brave medical workers who remain in Syria, the odds are set against them. The tens of thousands of deaths in Syria are a failure for medicine, the international community, and those who seek to protect the innocent in warfare.
Aside from trauma related war injuries, Syrians are suffering from starvation in increasing numbers, with women and children facing the greatest risk. Rebel controlled territories have been cut off from oil and flour, causing costs of food to rise, threatening starvation for tens of thousands. Flour factories have been bombed at increasing rates, resulting in a serious shortage of supplies and causing costs of bread to go through the roof.
Hout, an Aleppo resident explains the difficulties of receiving food. “We’re starving. I can bear it but what about my children? I stand from 3 in the afternoon until 11 at night and you can’t always get bread.” As a result, residents are now forced to either beg, steal, or starve. In many cities, those who can afford the high cost of food still fear leaving the safety of their homes. Recently, as many as 300 individuals were killed by an airstrike while standing in line to buy bread.
Rebel controlled territories have been cut off from electricity and heat in residential areas, leaving hundreds of thousands at risk of hypothermia. Those who have been forced out of their homes find themselves without proper shelter and clothing in the freezing temperatures. Many refugees have arrived to neighboring countries wearing nothing but sandals, shorts and t-shirts. As temperatures drop towards zero, and the rain and snow continue to pour, hundreds of thousands of families are finding refuge in unheated schools, mosques and semi-finished buildings, sleeping on the cold concrete floors. Due to the dropping temperatures and lack of proper shelter, hypothermia, pneumonia, and respiratory tract infections are becoming increasingly prominent and dangerous to the young, old and vulnerable.
The Refugee Crisis
Those who have fled the fighting, hoping to find peace, are now facing new dangers. Refugees are now spread out across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and are lacking proper resources and facilities to treat those with medical needs.
With nearly 500,000 displaced refugees, half of whom are children, aid agencies have been unable to provide proper facilities for all refugees, and are scrambling to do so before winter sets in. The mountains of Lebanon are now home to 120,000 refugees. The freezing conditions and lack of food and water are placing Syrians in life-threatening conditions; including at least 300 newborns struggling to stay alive.
The 110,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan face a similar situation as they fight sub-zero temperatures and a lack of proper shelter. The conflict within Syria has caused the price of food in Jordan to skyrocket, leaving the refugees malnourished and weak. The 140,000 refugees in Turkey are living in equally dangerous conditions. With significant overcrowding and the potential for treacherous floods, refugees are dreading the worst of the coming winter.
The United Nations has recently increased its projection of Syrian refugees from the conflict for the fourth time, anticipating more than 1 million total refugees in the next 6 months. The UN agencies said they were seeking $1 billion to assist refugees in neighboring countries and an additional $519 million more to provide emergency aid to four million people inside Syria; a figure which represents almost 20 percent of the country’s population.
“The violence in Syria is raging across the country; there are nearly no more safe areas where people can flee,” Radhouane Nouicer, the coordinator of United Nations humanitarian aid, told journalists in Geneva.
“If nothing is done to change the current dynamic, and to move toward a political solution, the destruction of Syria will be the likely outcome”, said Jeffrey Feltman, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs.
A Modern Humanitarian Failure
The tragedy of the Syrian crisis lies not only in the horror that has swept over the country, but in the impotence of the international community to provide meaningful aid to the Syrian people. The geopolitical games being played in Syria have overshadowed the immense suffering of its people. For the Syrians who have fought for freedom against the regime of Assad for the past 19 months, their feelings towards the international community are a mix of abandonment and betrayal. Putting all political considerations aside, the international community could have and should have done more to protect the children of Syria, and provide emergency medical assistance to a vulnerable civilian population. For those who have paid the ultimate price, it may be too late, but for the 1 million or more refugees facing supply shortages and a grim winter, the time for action is now.
Raha Mirabdal is a NEO associate and is in her final year of nursing school at the University of San Francisco in California.