February 2018 has been an extremely bad month for Syria and by all counts, the worst phase of the conflict which began on 15 March 2011. The war till now was mainly concentrated in Homs, Aleppo Al Raqaa and some other areas. Damascus, the capital city, though subject to some intermittent attacks these past years, was regarded as a relatively safe place. That reality has changed dramatically with areas in and around Damascus (particularly in Eastern Ghouta) subject to heavy and regular bombardments; besides, people from the besieged areas are apparently, as a last ditch effort also resorting to indiscriminate bombing in the thickly populated areas of the old city. Bombing from the different warring factions has meant many fatalities, severe causalities and all round destruction.
Damascus, once a thriving metropolis, today wears the appearance of a ghost town. There is very little movement on the streets. A fairly large section of the people have left the city for safer and more secure places, in other parts of the country. Fear and a cloud of uncertainty has gripped everybody. In the early afternoon of 20 February Ms. Vivian Shaheen (who also volunteers with the Jesuit Refugee Service) was about to leave her workplace in a Government facility in the heart of Damascus. After days of experiencing frequent shelling in the Bab Tuoma area, Vivian had decided to take a break from Damascus and go to her family home in Maara which is a safer location. She had just said “goodbye” to a close friend and colleague Ms. Lama Fallouh who was also headed home. Suddenly from nowhere a bomb exploded; Vivian did not know what had hit her, just that she was bleeding profusely. She was able to run to a vehicle that had come to pick her up and was rushed to a nearby hospital. A shrapnel had pierced her right shoulder (fragmenting the bones there) and exiting from her upper arm. Her friend Lama was killed instantaneously by that bomb! The tragic everyday reality of a people who have to deal not only with the violence but the pain and trauma in the loss of a loved one.
On 22 February, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that it must act immediately “ What we need is a sustained cessation of hostilities and we need it desperately Millions of battered and beleaguered children, women and men depend on meaningful action by this Council.” Mr. Lowcock went on to remind the Security Council that it had been briefed “in minute detail – month after month – on the scale of the suffering of the Syrian people, with endless reports on dead and injured children, women and men. Airstrikes, mortars, rockets, barrel bombs, cluster munitions, chemical weapons, thermite bombs, suicide bombs snipers, double-tap attacks on civilians and the essential infrastructure they depend on, including hospitals and school, rape, illegal detention, torture, child recruitment and sieges of entire cities reminiscent of medieval times”
The world community is aware that the Syrian conflict is not merely a ‘civil’ war; there are many other major stake-holders that have made it an international amphitheatre. In the past month, the United States, Israel and Turkey have in turn bombarded military and civilian areas in Syria, on dubious and questionable grounds. The profiteering military-industrial complex needs to keep the region destabilized for its own selfish reasons. This is tragic indeed! It looks as though some of the so-called ‘big powers’ are really not serious about peace returning to Syria. At some stage there was a modicum of hope, but now all that is destroyed with this latest round of violence – which is apparently the worst bout since the outbreak of hostilities in March 2011. The years of war have torn families apart, destroyed businesses and shattered livelihoods. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said some time ago, “It is a collective failure. Ultimately, Syria’s conflict isn’t about numbers – it’s about people”
According to the latest statistics of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) over 5.4 million people have fled Syria since 2011, seeking safety mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan and beyond. There are at least 6.1 million more who are internally displaced inside Syria. There are approximately 13.1 million people who are in need in Syria of which 2.98 million still live in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million children under the age of seven, know nothing but war. Host communities are naturally under great strain as they shoulder the social, economic and political fallout. Hundreds of thousands have made perilous sea voyages seeking sanctuary; but no one is sure how many may have died at sea. While many have sought refuge in Europe, Canada and the United States, only a small percentage have actually been welcomed. The world is also painfully aware of the rise in xenophobia, racism, jingoism, exclusiveness and the stranglehold of right- wing politics in several countries across the globe.
This bloody Syrian war has in these seven years witnessed the deaths of thousands and caused the largest displacement in recent human history. After these terrible years of experiencing widespread destruction and insecurity, there is a natural frustration and a sense of fatigue. Most Syrians are ready to clutch at any straw for normalcy, to fan any glimmer of hope which may come their way. They yearn for peace and stability; they want their united Syria of the past to be restored to them. They desperately want the bombarding and the air strikes (which today take place with frightening regularity) to stop now. Most Syrians today live in that state of uncertainty, not knowing from where and when the next bomb will fall; like Vivian and her now dead friend Lama, they do not know whether they will live to see tomorrow!
At this moment fear, helplessness and hopelessness is the reality of many a Syrian today. The other day, as bombs rained in Damascus another friend of mine from there called saying, “I am trapped. What do I do? When will this war ever end?” There are obviously no clear answers and no words of comfort which can ever change the grim reality which people there have to face, day-in and day-out. It is indeed a bloody and ugly war that needs to be stopped immediately. The powerful, vested interests of the world must get their act together and ensure that now! The rest of us mortals, can only hope and pray that peace and normalcy returns to Syria today!
(The writer is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org ).(Published on 26th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 09)