Syria’s relentless civil war enters its eighth year this month with no sign of any end to what has become this century’s bloodiest, most brutal conflict. The fighting has claimed an estimated one-half million lives and caused nearly half the country’s pre-war population of 21 million to flee their homes for safety, either elsewhere inside Syria or as refugees outside the country.
Despite the fact that humanitarian aid workers continue to be targeted by various parties to the conflict, International Medical Corps remains in Syria, working to ease the suffering of those affected by the violence. Our teams have been helping those displaced in and around Damascus since the start of the conflict, and we continue to support tens of thousands of the 5.6 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. And when the sheer weight of events briefly opened the doors for refugees to enter Europe, International Medical Corps was there to assist them as they landed on Greek island beaches following oft-perilous journeys across the Mediterranean.
Since the start of the conflict, we have provided nearly 16 million patient consultations, performed nearly one million surgeries, and provided much-needed relief supplies to more than three million people. Despite these efforts, our assistance-along with that of other emergency relief groups-is dwarfed by the levels of violence and the enormity of the suffering caused by this brutal war.
To the despair of Syrians who have already suffered so greatly, the intensity of bloodshed has only increased with the passage of time as first Russia, then Turkey joined the fight directly and other countries were also drawn in. Since late last year, levels of violence seemed to reach new heights. Beginning with a major, ongoing aerial bombardment launched on February 18, 2018, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and another 4,000 or more wounded in a battle for the control of an area just east of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta, according to the United Nations.
Lifesaving aid has not reliably reached all in need in Eastern Ghouta since November 2013, and all relief, including food and medicine, has been completely blocked from entering the enclave since November 2016. More than 390,000 Syrians in Eastern Ghouta are in need of humanitarian assistance to survive, and more than one in three children under age five in the besieged enclave are stunted from chronic malnutrition. Calls for allowing care for the wounded and humanitarian relief for civilians trapped in the fighting have been routinely ignored. Medical facilities, once marked with a red cross to warn off would-be attackers, have instead become prime targets in the Syrian conflict, forcing most underground-often literally-in an effort to help prevent targeting while continuing to operate. At least 28 medical facilities in Eastern Ghouta had been attacked since last month’s intensified aerial bombardment began, according to the United Nations.
Video clips posted online display the horrors of life inside one hospital where a young nurse first tends to a dying child and then tries to comfort the mother before retreating to a corner and sinking slowly to the floor, head in hands, emotionally and physically spent.
Despite the unanimous adoption by the United Nations Security Council on February 24 of a resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire to provide aid and evacuate the sick and wounded, a convoy of humanitarian relief supplies sent into the embattled area came under fire and was forced to leave after only unloading half of the desperately needed food and other supplies. Even before the humanitarian relief convoy was allowed to travel into Eastern Ghouta, lifesaving medical supplies, including insulin and surgical kits, were removed by the Government of Syria, according to media reports.
As fighting has intensified, so too have reports of civilians being subjected to attacks with chemical weapons, whose use was banned by international agreement following World War I. Deliberate targeting of hospitals and humanitarian aid convoys continue seemingly unabated. After seven years of war, the illegal, the inhumane, and the barbaric have taken root. They have become Syria’s new normal. And the world outside appears to have become inured to the suffering of its people.