Tuesday 25 November 2014

Barry Andrews: Western nations standing idly by while the Syrian people suffer

Published 07/05/2013 | 05:00

Refugee children in the Al Zaatri camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria

THE suffering in Syria over the past two years has far exceeded that of any recent humanitarian crisis. I visited Turkey and Syria last month to review GOAL's programmes. The trip illustrated for me the frustrations felt by those who are anxious for an end to the conflict.

There may be limits to what the international community can do, but even if our governments did what they had promised, it would make a significant difference.

I visited a refugee centre on the Turkish side of the border, a four-storey building that is home to around 400 people. The head man didn't want to let us in. As a crowd gathered to listen to the negotiations, he explained that the refugees were weary of meeting NGOs who subsequently delivered nothing.

Families of up to 25 members have been staying at the centre for more than three months. Mattresses cover almost every inch of the floor. All the people want is to be allowed live in an official refugee camp, where they can have their own tents and some privacy. But the sheer weight of numbers of people fleeing Syria has put enormous pressure on the governments of neighbouring countries.

I spoke to a young man called Mohammed. He told me that he didn't want food and blankets, what the Syrians needed was "surface-to-air missiles, weapons of mass destruction, anti-tank missiles". This radicalisation of young people is likely to continue as long as the fighting lasts.

Outside on the pavement, surrounded by all her worldly goods, a newly arrived woman and her young family waited to gain entry to the shelter. She had two nieces with her, who she had adopted as her own. Their mother was killed only two weeks earlier.

The woman told our translator that her beautiful house had been destroyed. She and her husband had worked for 14 years to have nice things and a nice house to live in. Now the indignity of having to ask for help from people like us almost destroys her. She has lost everything, and was reduced to sitting on the footpath begging for assistance.

The refugee centre has no room for her. We teach our children respect and compassion, but every once in a while the depth of our own humanity is examined. Syria is a remote country, located in a region that we assume to be hopelessly violent. It is too conveniently easy to look away.

The following day we travelled into Syria. We drove to a town near the border and met our guide who had studied English literature. He had been doing a master's degree in Aleppo University, but was expelled after being arrested for his involvement in opposition activities.

The part of Syria we entered is under the control of rebel forces.

We met with Syrian GOAL staff members and representatives of the local relief committee, who ensured our safe passage throughout the day.

As we drove to the GOAL offices, we passed several checkpoints, and were waved through. Since GOAL's arrival late last year, we have won widespread acceptance and are free to do our work.

One of our GOAL staff had lost his father to sniper fire from a Roman fort that overlooks Haram, the town where we are based. The fort was the last stronghold for government troops before the rebels took over.

Over 10 tonnes of flour arrived in a truck from Turkey while we were there. Our staff are keen to get started with the latest round of GOAL's aid distribution, and have put in place the logistical framework for a larger-scale intervention.

As this conflict has gone on, impartiality has become almost impossible among the local population. By contrast, the international community is maintaining an artificial impartiality that is only going to prolong the bloodshed. When will the international community conclude that enough is enough?

It is understandable that options are limited while Russia and China continue to block a UN mandate, but, short of a military intervention, there are other ways of relieving the pressure on the Syrian population. A no-fly zone has been suggested, and even that would be of limited benefit.

The international community must demonstrate enough political will to provide for the basic needs of the Syrian population, whatever about the more complex issues around intervention. There is something deeply wrong about the inertia that has characterised the international response to the Syrian crisis. Each opportunity missed has condemned Syria to more suffering.

More than 70,000 deaths have not triggered any conclusion – nor have one million refugees fleeing to bordering countries; or the more than four million people stuck inside the country in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Our final stop during my visit to Syria was at an IDP (internally displaced persons) centre in what had once been an agricultural college. There were about 40 families staying there. A man on crutches told us how he had lost his 12-year-old son and his brother to government forces, and what he thought of Bashar al-Assad. Our translator was a little bit embarrassed by the fiery language.

Such radical views are becoming more common in Syria as the fighting continues. Each fresh atrocity deepens divisions that will be all the harder to reconcile when the conflict ends.

Barry Andrews is CEO of GOAL

Irish Independent

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