The once-white tents stretched as far as the eye could see. Three days of pouring rain had created a wet landscape of small lakes and tiny streams. Barefoot children played in freezing muddy water. It was just before Christmas and I was in Atmeh refugee camp, North Syria, home to 130,000 internally displaced people. They had fled President Bashir Assad’s shelling and airstrikes. Many had nothing left to return to.
I was there with Dr Rola, a British Syrian doctor and medical co-ordinator of British charity Hand in Hand for Syria. The organization was formed by members of the Syrian diaspora in 2011, at the start of the uprising, in response to a deteriorating humanitarian crisis.
In the early days of the revolution, Dr Rola, like many others, had watched events on the news: ‘We had to move on from crying in front of the television,’ she explained. The crisis has had a very personal impact on Rola’s family. A number of her relatives have been killed and many injured. Her father, also a doctor, helped co-ordinate medical logistics from inside Syria in the early days of the uprising.
Sixteen months ago Rola was a specialist registrar working in a British National Health Service teaching hospital, building a career
We had first met at a Royal Society of Medicine event in London in early 2012. I had been speaking about healthcare in Libya during the conflict there. She spoke about her frustration at not being able to attract support from international agencies and funders, who had so willingly supported the Libyan uprising.
We met a number of times over the year, and each time the picture Rola painted of the conditions faced by refugees in Syria got bleaker. Secretly, I thought: ‘Someone will step in and things will improve.’ But no-one did and it was left to dedicated volunteers like Rola and her team to offer their assistance.
While at the camp I saw many distressing scenes. At one point, Rola greeted health workers at the makeshift medical centre. She asked about the condition of a badly injured woman being cared for in a Turkish hospital. The woman had lit a candle in her tent – there is no electricity. The tent caught light, quickly becoming a fireball. Her two children died in the blaze and she suffered 70 per-cent burns.
‘We can’t take a day off because there is so much to do. We all feel a personal responsibility to keep going and a huge amount of guilt if we rest,’ explained Rola. Sixteen months ago she was a specialist registrar working in a British National Health Service teaching hospital, building a career. Now she has been thrust into the world of medical relief, global health policy and co-ordinating aid delivery in a conflict zone. The learning curve has been steep.
The north is now in the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the risks from Assad’s airstrikes remain – we looked skywards at every rumble. There is a marked absence of UN and international humanitarian agencies because they lack authorization from Damascus to provide cross-border assistance in FSA areas. However, precedence does exist for the UN to operate in areas not under local government control, as it did with South Sudan in the 1980s.
‘The world will look back at this in years to come and all who just stood and watched will have blood on their hands’
Fabrice Weissman, Médecins Sans Frontières’ operations advisor, explained in an article published in French newspaper Le Monde that international aid is being distributed only to government-held areas, with agencies co-ordinating through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society. This practice is causing great resentment towards the international community by those suffering as a consequence. They see it plainly – those still supporting the Assad regime are benefiting from international aid and those opposing him are not.
Rola articulates the sentiment: ‘The world will look back at this in years to come and all who just stood and watched will have blood on their hands. That’s why I do what I do, because you can’t just stand and watch.’
Plugging a gap
‘We are doing the work of governments, of ministries. We are overwhelmed,’ said Dr Rola. The bulk of the humanitarian work on the ground is being done by grassroots NGOs such as Hand in Hand who remain largely unsupported by the wealthier, larger international NGOs and funders such as the British Department for International Development.
Médicins Sans Frontières has, however, worked in secret locations since last summer, although not on a permanent basis. Being a doctor in Syria is now considered a high-risk occupation and many have left the country. A report by the International Rescue Committee Syrian Commission on Syrian Refugees states that healthcare facilities are being deliberately targeted for treating the war-wounded. One doctor described 36 doctors working in Aleppo, when previously they had 5,000. Hand in Hand says that 14 doctors were killed in November 2012 alone. Medicine has become a weapon of war.
But despite her anger, Dr Rola remains focused. She knows an alliance between grassroots NGOS, who have access on the ground, and international organizations, with their expertise and money, has to emerge if lives are to be saved. MSF’s Weissman agrees, saying: ‘traditional international aid would be more than welcome.’ He accepts that it would require diplomatic courage on the part of the UN agencies and supporting states such as the European Union, the US, Russia and China.
Until then, there exists a sense of abandonment among Rola and other Syrians embroiled in this bloody uprising: ‘How many people will die this winter?’ she asked. ‘Not just from the bombs and missiles, but from hunger, cold, treatable illnesses rendered untreatable, and from a broken heart – at having been brave enough to stand up to a brutal regime. The world turned its back on us and those who dared are paying the ultimate price.’