Annie Sparrow reports: One way to measure the horrific suffering of Syria’s increasingly violent war is through the experience of Syrian children. More than one million children are now refugees. At least 11,500 have been killed because of the armed conflict,1 well over half of these because of the direct bombing of schools, homes, and health centers, and roughly 1,500 have been executed, shot by snipers or tortured to death. At least 128 were killed in the chemical massacre in August.
In the midst of all this violence, it is easy to miss the health catastrophe that has also struck Syrian children, who must cope with war trauma, malnutrition, and stunted growth alongside collapsing sanitation and living conditions. Syria has become a cauldron of once-rare infectious diseases, with hundreds of cases of measles each month and outbreaks of typhoid, hepatitis, and dysentery. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, and whooping cough are all on the rise. Upward of 100,000 children are stigmatized by leishmaniasis, a hideous parasitic skin disease that flourishes in war. Many of these diseases have already traveled beyond Syria’s borders, carried by millions of refugees. Five million more children have been forced out of their homes but are still living within Syria, increasingly vulnerable to early marriage, trafficking, and recruitment as child soldiers.
And now polio is back. Since May, Syrian doctors and international public health agencies have documented more than ninety cases of polio in seven of Syria’s fourteen administrative districts, or governorates: Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Idlib, Hamas, Damascus, al-Hasakeh, and Ar-Raqqa. At an average age of just under two, most victims are—or used to be—literally toddlers. Few were fully vaccinated. None has had treatment to prevent paralysis from becoming permanent. All are from areas long opposed to the Assad regime, which reflects the political dimension of the outbreak. Not a single case has occurred in territory controlled by the government.
Once the most feared disease of the twentieth century, polio in most countries had long ago passed into the history books. Syria was no exception. Polio was eliminated there in 1995 following mandatory (and free) immunization introduced in 1964 after the Baath party took power.2 Yet wildtype 1 polio—the most vicious form of the disease—has been confirmed across much of Syria.
Ninety or so afflicted children may sound like a small number, but they are only a tiny manifestation of an enormous problem, since for each crippled child up to one thousand more are silently infected. Polio is so contagious that a single case is considered a public health emergency. Ninety cases could mean some 90,000 people infected, each a carrier invisibly spreading the disease to others for weeks on end. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Lugging three plastic sacks full of clothes, Abu Mohammed and his three daughters pulled back the wrought iron border crossing gate, stepped through it into Turkey and smiled.
As one daughter wept tears of relief, her father recounted their 12-hour journey from Aleppo, through some of the most terrifying and volatile scenes of the Syrian civil war.
“It was miserable,” he said, his eyes haggard from the stress and the relentless two weeks of aerial bombardment that preceded it.
“At every checkpoint along the way, we didn’t know who was in charge. There was The Islamic State of Iraq in Sham [Isis, a name given to the main al-Qaida group in the north – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant], the Free Syria Army, the Islamic Front. It changed every few miles.”
The family had woken early last Friday, sensing the latest outbreak of violence to ravage the north meant a hope of escape. For one week prior, the myriad fighting groups that make up the opposition had been at each other’s throats from Idlib in the north-west, to Raqaa several hundred miles east.
Isis, which had steadily been enforcing a religious tyranny across a broad swath of land, had been ousted from many of its strongholds and was being surrounded in others.
The fratricidal fighting erupted several weeks before a much-anticipated detente scheduled for 22 January in Geneva, adding another layer of complexity to a war that long ago ceased to have two clear-cut protagonists.
“It’s not clear who is winning,” said Abu Mohammed. “It’s not even clear who is fighting. What really matters to us is that we could finally leave.” [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: After spreading turmoil and desperate refugees across the Middle East, Syria’s brutal civil war has now leaked misery into Europe’s eastern fringe — and put a spring in the step of Angel Bozhinov, a nationalist activist in this Bulgarian border town next to Turkey.
The local leader of Ataka, a pugnacious, far-right party, Mr. Bozhinov lost his seat in the town council at the last municipal elections in 2011 but now sees his fortunes rising thanks to public alarm over an influx of Syrian refugees across the nearby frontier.
Membership of the local branch of Ataka, he said, had surged in recent weeks as “people come up to me in the street and tell me that our party was right.” Ataka, which means attack, champions “Bulgaria for Bulgarians” and has denounced Syrian refugees as terrorists whom Bulgaria, the European Union’s poorest nation, must expel. An Ataka member of Parliament has reviled them as “terrible, despicable primates.”
With populist, anti-immigrant parties gathering momentum across much of Europe, Ataka stands out as a particularly shrill and, its critics say, sinister political force — an example of how easily opportunistic groups can stoke public fears while improving their own fortunes.
The influx of Syrian refugees has sown divisions across the European Union as the refugees add burdens on governments still struggling to emerge from years of recession. But Bulgaria is perhaps the most fragile of all the European Union’s 28 members. Modest as the numbers of refugees are here, the entry of nearly 6,500 Syrians this year has overwhelmed the deeply unpopular coalition government and added a volatile element to the nation’s already unstable politics.
The arrival of the refugees and public fury over the stabbing of a young Bulgarian woman by an Algerian asylum seeker “has opened the floodgates” for far-right nationalists, said Daniel Smilov of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a policy research group in Sofia, the capital. “They see this as their big chance.” [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: Dania Amroosh wears a Hello Kitty shirt, tiny heart-shaped earrings and her hair in cute little pigtails. She looks like any other 7-year-old, except for the jagged scars on the bridge of her nose and across her chin.
There is much worse beneath her blanket on the third floor of the Kilis State Hospital in southern Turkey. A huge seeping wound on her stomach is closed with an angry grid of stitches. The casts are finally off her broken right leg and right hand, but her fingers are still black and blue and she can barely walk. Her lower body is covered with shrapnel scars.
Five months ago, Dania and her family were sitting in their home in Aleppo, Syria, about 60 miles south of here, when a bomb dropped from the sky. Her grandmother, aunt, uncle and two cousins were killed instantly. Another cousin lost his legs. Dania was mangled.
Mohammad Amroosh, her father, says that after what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military did to them, he can’t go back. When Dania is ready to leave the hospital, the family will stay in Turkey, joining nearly 700,000 other Syrians who have taken shelter in the country.
“This is our home now,” he says.
One of the world’s largest forced migrations since World War II is transforming the Middle East.
The United Nations and governments in the countries where the refugees have taken shelter estimate that between 2.3 million and 2.8 million Syrians have fled their homeland. The United Nations says that number is rising by nearly 3,000 people a day, with no end in sight for a conflict that has lasted nearly three years. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: The United Nations said Wednesday that it is “extremely concerned” for Syria’s refugees as snow and freezing temperatures descended on the region.
Syria and the countries that border it have been bracing for what is expected to be the worst winter storm in years. Snow hit some areas of Lebanon, Turkey and northern Syria overnight Tuesday as sharp winds and cold, heavy rains battered others, causing misery for hundreds of thousands in camps and shanties.
In Lebanon, despite the wintry conditions, the flow of Syrians fleeing the war is unrelenting. Local officials in the border town of Arsal, where some of the heaviest snow fell overnight, on Wednesday reported the arrival of 200 men, women and children who had risked the treacherous journey across the mountains on foot. Many were from the town of Yabroud in the Qalamoun region, where a Syrian army offensive is underway.
Aid agencies, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanese army rushed to distribute kits containing plastic sheeting and blankets to the newcomers, but poorly funded humanitarian groups are struggling to meet the overwhelming needs. Authorities remain reluctant to establish permanent refugee camps in Lebanon and have opened only one official, 100-tent “transit camp.” [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: Its dusty streets lined with cars bearing Syrian license plates, this Lebanese mountain town has long felt as much Syrian as Lebanese. But as Bashar al-Assad’s army squeezes rebel-held towns just across the border, 20,000 new arrivals have left locals significantly outnumbered and forced Lebanon to open its first official transit camp for Syrian refugees.
Many arrive in the border town with little more than the clothes on their backs, packing into wedding halls and mosques or sleeping in cars while awaiting tents in the newly organized camp.
The influx comes as the Syrian army, backed by forces from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, moves to secure towns in the Qalamoun region across the border. It started as government forces took Qara, a highway town dotted with car mechanic shops on the road from Homs to the capital, Damascus, a fortnight ago. The town emptied, and a convoy of thousands left for Lebanon, the winding dirt road across the mountains backed up with cars and trucks. On Thursday, Deir Attiyeh, a few miles farther south on the highway, was retaken by government forces after being seized by rebels days earlier, while nearby Nabk remained surrounded. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Fifty miles off the southeastern coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a gray spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean. Then, as an Italian Coast Guard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view, as did the dim figure of a man, standing on the bow, waving a white blanket.
Adrift at sea, the boat heaved with about 150 Syrians fleeing war. Mothers in head scarves clutched infants. A child wore a SpongeBob life jacket. Smugglers had left them alone with a satellite phone and an emergency number in Italy: Save us, they pleaded to the Italians before the phone went dead. We are lost.
Capt. Roberto Mangione shouted for everyone to stay calm as he positioned his Coast Guard ship alongside the listing trawler. The Syrians, pale and beleaguered, started clapping. They had been at sea for six days, drinking fetid water, enduring a terrifying storm. One man combed his hair, as if preparing to greet his new life. A woman named Abeer, dazed and exhausted, thought: salvation, at last.
“I had nothing left in Syria,” she explained after stepping onto the rescue boat. She had fled with her husband and three teenage children. “We came with nothing but ourselves to Europe.”
The Syrian exodus has become one of the gravest global refugee crises of recent decades. More than two million people have fled Syria’s civil war, most resettling in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe in what became for many weeks a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Over five months, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued thousands of Syrians, even as hundreds of other migrants, including many Syrians, died in two major shipwrecks in October. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: As the boom of shelling resounded along Turkey’s border with Syria here on a recent afternoon, Zakaria Deeb had nowhere left to run.
He had traveled 100 miles to Kilis with his family, chasing a false rumor that refugees would be allowed into a Turkish-run camp in the city, about 50 miles north of the Syrian city Aleppo. Instead, along with hundreds of other Syrians, the Deebs were now squatting in a gravel-strewn field across from the camp, sleeping under plastic sheets hanging from the branch of a cypress tree.
Nearly three years of bloody civil war in Syria have created what the United Nations, governments and international humanitarian organizations describe as the most challenging refugee crisis in a generation — bigger than the one unleashed by the Rwandan genocide and laden with the sectarianism of the Balkan wars. With no end in sight in the conflict and with large parts of Syria already destroyed, governments and organizations are quietly preparing for the refugee crisis to last years.
The Deebs fled their home a year ago because of fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces. Recent clashes between Kurdish fighters and the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, pushed them into Turkey. Now, just on the other side of the border here, ISIS fighters were battling yet another rebel group, the Northern Storm.
“We expected the revolution to be over quickly, like in Libya and Egypt, but it’s been nearly three years already, and God knows when this war will end,” Mr. Deeb, 31, said, peering at the plumes of white smoke rising inside Syria. Children shrieked as another large mortar shell exploded across the border.
A stray bullet from Syria had landed inside the camp in the morning, wounding a 5-year-old girl in the foot. “If this camp is full, we’re willing to go to any camp inside Turkey,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to Syria.”
Syrians have been pouring out of their country in recent months, fleeing an increasingly violent and murky conflict that is pitting scores of armed groups against one another as much as against the government. Numbering just 300,000 one year ago, the refugees now total 2.1 million, and the United Nations predicts their numbers could swell to 3.5 million by the end of the year. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: After escaping shelling in Damascus and terrifying bloodshed at sea, 14 month-old Palestinian twin girls are now among hundreds of people living in limbo in grimy Egyptian police stations, with no end in sight to their plight.
Of the 2 million people who fled Syria’s civil war, none may have it worse than Palestinians, who have known no other home than Syria but do not have Syrian citizenship and have therefore been denied even the basic rights secured for other refugees.
The United Nations says the Egyptian government has refused it permission to register Palestinians from Syria as refugees and give them the yellow card that allows them to settle. As a result, hundreds of Palestinians civilians have ended up detained in police stations, with no place else to go.
The twins’ family fled Syria after their house was nearly hit by shelling. But when they arrived in Egypt they were denied permission to work or to receive refugee benefits. After five months, with no other way of obtaining a living, they attempted to leave Egypt for Italy.
They were captured at sea on September 17 by the Egyptian navy, which fired on the overloaded rickety craft, the mother of the twins said. She held her daughters tight as bullets flew by. At least one person was hit and the boat was filled with blood and flying shrapnel.
“The children were traumatised,” she said. “I was holding my daughter hunched down. The bullets were coming…. There was so much screaming… There was so much blood….”
If the family were Syrian citizens, once detained they would most likely have been permitted to leave Egypt for refugee camps in other countries in the region, says Human Rights Watch.
But because they are Palestinians they have been given no other option but to camp out in a police station indefinitely, or somehow make their way back to the war zone in Syria.
Turkey and Jordan will not accept Palestinians from Syria and Lebanon will only allow them to pass through for 48 hours. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: The United Nations estimates that around 9.3 million people in Syria or about 40 percent of the population need humanitarian assistance due to the country’s 2-1/2-year, the U.N. humanitarian office said on Monday.
“The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate rapidly and inexorably,” U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors, according to her spokeswoman Amanda Pitt.
“The number of people we estimate to be in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria has now risen to some 9.3 million,” Pitt said, summarizing Amos’ remarks to the 15-nation council. “Of them, 6.5 million people are displaced from their homes, within the country.” [Continue reading...]
Kenneth Roth writes: Close to seven million Syrians in the country now depend on humanitarian assistance for basic necessities.
The Assad government has acted with callous disregard for them, placing bureaucratic obstacles in the way of desperately needed relief. It has refused to register all but a handful of the most capable and experienced international aid agencies. It has held up urgently needed assistance in customs, and required multiple official sign-offs that doom aid shipments to extreme delays. Most harmful, it has insisted that aid be sent from government-held territory. The most direct route to many of those in need would be across the borders of neighboring Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon, but Damascus insists on circuitous routes that require aid workers to travel up to ten times farther through dozens of checkpoints. As a result, only a trickle of aid reaches civilians in rebel-held territory. The proliferation of rebel groups, some hostile to foreign assistance, has also impeded aid delivery.
Some governments, including the United States, have begun quietly funding private humanitarian groups to provide cross-border assistance. But the quantities required are too great, and the threats of violence too grave, for private groups to meet these demands on their own. A major UN-led operation is needed.
The United Nations will ordinarily not undertake such operations without the consent of the government whose population requires assistance. The Syrian government has been loath to permit such cross-border humanitarian aid because that would undermine its efforts to make life miserable in rebel-held areas. The UN Security Council could order Syria to allow cross-border assistance, but through the end of September, Russia would have none of it. Nyet prevailed.
The chemical weapons accord provided an opportunity to address these humanitarian needs. Just five days after the Security Council resolution affirming the deal, on September 27, Russia accepted a Security Council presidential statement urging Syria to “take immediate steps to facilitate the expansion of humanitarian relief operations,” including, “where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries.” A presidential statement is less authoritative than a formal resolution, but that should not obscure the fact that Russia, Syria’s most important ally, has now effectively ordered it to allow such aid. The Security Council asked the UN secretary-general to report back on how the statement was being implemented, opening the way for additional steps by the council should blockages persist.
The United Nations should seize this opportunity, make concrete demands for access by specific deadlines, and report any further resistance promptly to the Security Council. Unfortunately, Valerie Amos, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has remained vague in public about the main obstacles to distributing humanitarian aid. Apparently fearful that blaming the Syrian government would jeopardize UN access to government-controlled areas, Amos has too often resorted to anodyne statements about the problem. One can only hope that, with the Security Council now behind it, the UN will find a more assertive voice.
Yet even if the disastrous humanitarian situation begins to improve, no serious effort is underway to stop the killing of civilians by conventional weapons. As front lines have hardened, the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths has dropped, but some two thousand of the recent average monthly death toll of five thousand have been civilians. What can be done to stop this slaughter?
The Obama administration’s primary answer has been peace talks. Kerry has revived efforts to convene “Geneva II” negotiations — a follow-up to the accord negotiated in June 2012 under UN and Arab League auspices that called on the warring parties to agree to a cease-fire and begin a political transition. Yet prospects for Geneva II are not encouraging. The rebel groups are not unified and say they won’t negotiate with Assad. Assad, in turn, says he won’t negotiate with most of the rebel groups.
A negotiated peace may well be the best way to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state. Mindful of the disastrous precedent of Iraq, even many die-hard Assad opponents hope the basic structure of the state will remain intact, though without Assad and his senior lieutenants. A negotiated peace also would provide a chance of ensuring the security of all Syrians, without regard to the sectarian animosities now dividing the country.
But few believe a negotiated peace is anywhere near. Civilian deaths continue, making it urgent to find some way to curtail the slaughter in the interim. Most paths for doing so go through Moscow. The chemical weapons deal shows that when Russian President Vladimir Putin tells Assad to do something, he does it. In view of the rapidity of Lavrov’s acceptance of Kerry’s outline of a chemical deal, there seems to have been little if any negotiation with Damascus. Moscow simply set the terms. But if Moscow has the power to stop the killing by chemical weapons, why not also stop the slaughter of civilians by conventional means? Why not insist on a new “red line” against the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of civilians? Even if the fighting continues, why not force Assad to concentrate on limiting civilian casualties — to attack only the fish and leave the sea alone?
Russia has not given a remotely adequate answer. Conversations on the subject tend to turn to atrocities committed by the rebels and to the growing numbers of extreme Islamist groups in rebel ranks. These are serious concerns, particularly in light of Russian fears that Syria has become a magnet for disgruntled young men from the former Soviet Union who might eventually attack their home governments. But they cannot justify Syrian government atrocities. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Rana Obaid began her life less than two years ago in a comfortable house draped with roses, the daughter of a grocer locally famous for his rich homemade yogurt. But war and siege brought hunger so quickly to their town near Damascus that when she died in September, at 19 months, her arms and legs were as thin as broomsticks.
In a nearby town, a woman with a son suffering from kidney failure makes her children take turns eating on alternate days. In a village outside Aleppo in northern Syria, people say they are living mainly on wild greens.
Aid workers say that Syrian refugee children are arriving in northern Lebanon thin and stunted, and that suspected malnutrition cases are surfacing from rebel-held areas in northern Syria to government-held suburbs south of Damascus.
Across Syria, a country that long prided itself on providing affordable food to its people, international and domestic efforts to ensure basic sustenance amid the chaos of war appear to be failing. Millions are going hungry to varying degrees, and there is growing evidence that acute malnutrition is contributing to relatively small but increasing numbers of deaths, especially among small children, the wounded and the sick, aid workers and nutrition experts say. The experts warn that if the crisis continues into the winter, deaths from hunger and illness could begin to dwarf deaths from violence, which has already killed well over 100,000 people, and if the deprivation lasts longer, a generation of Syrians risks stunted development.
“I didn’t expect to see that in Syria,” said Dr. Annie Sparrow, an assistant professor and pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who examined Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and was shocked to find many underweight for their height and age.
“It’s not accurate to say this is Somalia, but this is a critical situation,” she said. “We have a middle-income country that is transforming itself into something a lot more like Somalia.”
While the war has prevented a precise accounting of the number of people affected, evidence of hunger abounds. The government is using siege and starvation as a tactic of war in many areas, according to numerous aid workers and residents, who say that soldiers at checkpoints confiscate food supplies as small as grocery bags, treating the feeding of people in strategic rebel-held areas as a crime. Rebel groups, too, are blockading some government-held areas and harassing food convoys. [Continue reading...]