Thursday 18 January 2018

Is this a sick joke after the world watched 100,000 die?

Many Syrians are scornful of West's stand on chemical weapons, says David Adams

Try telling the people of Syria that a "red line" was crossed last week when chemical weapons were used to kill hundreds of civilians in two suburbs of Damascus.

They'll tell you the West must be engaging in some kind of sick joke at their expense.

You see, they can't quite understand why everyone is suddenly becoming so agitated after standing by and doing nothing for over two years while in excess of 100,000 Syrians have been killed by rockets, bombs, gunfire, and grenades.

As one Syrian woman put it to me, as news of the chemical attack in Damascus and the West's reaction to it began filtering through to the part of Northern Syria that I was visiting, "So it's okay for the regime to destroy our homes, and butcher us in our tens of thousands, as long as they do it with the gun and the bomb?"

Every Syrian I spoke to reacted similarly. And what right-thinking person could disagree with their logic?

I was in Northern Syria last week on one of my frequent visits to GOAL's programmes there. GOAL is one of the few humanitarian agencies working inside the country, and we see at first hand the scale of the suffering of ordinary people. Much is made of the plight of those who have flocked to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, and rightly so, but it must be said that those who manage to escape the country are the lucky ones.

At least they are now safe, and have proper shelter and access to food, water and medicines.

There are an estimated 4.25 million internal refugees in Syria living in schools, mosques, deserted buildings or out in the open. They have no electricity, little water and food, and no medicines. More than half of these internal refugees – close to 2.5 million – are children.

Ayoub and his family are typical examples. They, along with 30 others, are living under a clump of trees, struggling to stay alive in daily temperatures of 40C. "My family is burning to death in this heat. My wife and I are sick, and our five children are feverish. The insects are eating us alive. What are we to do?" he asked.

The families have no money and little food and what little water they can find is tepid. Even the most basic medicines are unavailable. They are wholly reliant upon the generosity of strangers and aid agencies like GOAL for their survival. The children are vacant-eyed and listless – would that they were among the one million youngsters who have made it to a refugee camp on the other side of one of Syria's borders.

Mustapha is another internal refugee. He and his wife and three children are living at a school on the outskirts of a large town about 50km from the Turkish border. Previously Mustapha had worked in Aleppo as an electrician. The family has been at the school since January and share a classroom with another family.


The five-roomed building is home to close to 100 people, most of them children. Every day, the inhabitants are forced to turn away new refugees.

Ragged children play around us, or sit idly brushing flies from their faces, as I chat with Mustapha. There is an air of fatalism about him, as he speaks softly, and without anger: "My two brothers were killed in Aleppo last December, when government jets bombed the area.

"We left soon after that. Just as well we did, for our house was destroyed by a bomb a week later. Most of our friends and family who stayed in the city are either dead or imprisoned by the regime. We did nothing to deserve this."

He tells me that he used to have four children, but last winter his youngest, a boy of three, died of fever. "I fear we will all die in this war. In the summer we bake, and in the winter we freeze."

Wherever I go in northern Syria, the people are in constant fear of aerial attacks by government bomber planes. And all around, there is enough evidence of freshly bombed buildings and cratered roads to show that their concerns are justified.

GOAL will be feeding around 120,000 people a month by October, and will begin as well to distribute blankets and plastic sheeting when winter starts to set in. But such is the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Syria that this is but a drop in the ocean. Until the international community decides that more than enough "red lines" have been crossed already, and embarks on a full-scale humanitarian intervention, then Syrians will continue to die in their thousands.

If they decide not to, then let no one pretend when this is over that they didn't know what was happening in Syria.

That really would be the sickest of jokes.

David Adams is media officer with GOAL. To donate to the organisation telephone 01-2809 779, or visit www.goal.ie.

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