‘Outstanding’ society delivering aid in Syria

Syrian Arab Red Crescent is taking its polio campaign into all areas

Residents gather near damaged cars at a site hit by what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, near a children’s park in Duma neighbourhood of Damascus. Photograpgh: Yousef Albostany/Reuters

Residents gather near damaged cars at a site hit by what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, near a children’s park in Duma neighbourhood of Damascus. Photograpgh: Yousef Albostany/Reuters

Fri, Nov 29, 2013, 01:00

During a brief encounter with Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) president Abdul Rahman Attar on the stair at the organisation’s headquarters, I congratulated him on the award of the global movement’s peace prize. The award recognised the courage and dedication of thousands of volunteers who risk death to provide first aid, food, clothes and medicine to millions of Syrians caught up in the 32-month conflict.

Attar had just returned from Australia where he had received the award, which he dedicated to the 31 volunteers who had lost their lives. By the time he had returned home a few days after the ceremony, the number of fatalities had risen to 33.

From all backgrounds and walks of life, volunteers – 3,000 working daily – receive 40 days’ training and are paid pocket money. Only management personnel receive salaries funded by donors.

Deputy director Samir Tallaj told The Irish Times: “The challenge has become worse in recent months. It is not easy to get supplies into hot areas. We must make arrangements with the army and armed groups in Homs, Aleppo, and rural Damascus. There are also armed men on the roads who want to steal supplies.”

An independent body founded in 1942, the Sarc works with domestic charities and international organisations such as the World Food Programme, World Health Organisation, and the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Polio, which had been eradicated in Syria for more than a decade, is the latest challenge. The disease was initially found in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor where 10 cases were confirmed, while another 10 suspected cases were reported in northwest Idlib province. Now it is everywhere although there are not too many cases, according to Tallaj. “All sides recognise the danger.

“The Sarc is taking the vaccination campaign everywhere. We have the chance to enter restricted areas” where insurgents exercise control. The Sarc, the government, and the opposition realise polio is also an important problem for Jordan and Lebanon” where Syrians have taken refuge.

Polio campaign
“We have better luck with the polio campaign than delivering supplies” to people on conflict zones, he said. The Sarc has been unable to gain access to the besieged Yarmouk district south of Damascus but has evacuated 7,500 people from the eastern Muadamiya suburb held by rebels and surrounded by the army.

“There is huge need because of the approach of winter but our partners do not have the capacity to cover the needs of [even] 25 per cent of the population while the total number is 50 per cent. People have no security, no work.

“The Sarc is involved in primary health care, relief distribution and other activities. We run clinics and polyclinics and open medical points. We give the injured immediate treatment and transfer them to hospitals.”

“The Sarc has problems with everybody if they are unhappy with our aid, cars are stolen and personnel are kidnapped.”

Outside the office are half a dozen Red Crescent ambulances on standby for emergencies. A 10-minute walk away at the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, (ICRC) spokesman Simon Schorno called the work of the Sarc “outstanding” and said “no other society does comparable work”.

Following the October kidnapping of ICRC personnel in Idlib province, operations have been suspended there. Three victims were released while three remain in captivity. “We haven’t spoken to them or the people who are holding them,” Schorno said.

Remarking on international and opposition calls for the creation of “humanitarian corridors”, he said, “the ICRC doesn’t believe in humanitarian corridors. They don’t work on the ground in many countries.”

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