Syria’s reality: 150,000 corpses, skeletal children and nine million displaced

Words such as ‘war-torn’ and ‘chaos’ fail to detail the scale of Syrian misery four years on

Refugees leave Syria at the border checkpoint in Dahuk, Iraq, in August 2013. Nearly half of all Syrians have been driven from their homes by the civil war and international observers fear there the conflict will only get worse. Photograph: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times

Refugees leave Syria at the border checkpoint in Dahuk, Iraq, in August 2013. Nearly half of all Syrians have been driven from their homes by the civil war and international observers fear there the conflict will only get worse. Photograph: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times


Day after day, the Syrian civil war has ground down a cultural and political centre of the Middle East, turning it into a stage for disaster and cruelty. Families are brutalised by their government and by jihadists claiming to be their saviours, as nearly half of Syrians have been driven from their homes.

At the start of the fourth year since Syrians rose up in a peaceful movement that turned to arms after violent repression, a snapshot presents the harsh truth that Syria’s descent is only accelerating.

The government bombards neighbourhoods with explosive barrels, missiles, heavy artillery and, the US says, chemical weapons. Then it sends in its allies in Hizbullah and other militias to wage street warfare. It jails and tortures peaceful activists, and uses starvation as a weapon, blockading opposition areas where trapped children suffer and die.

The opposition is now functionally dominated by foreign-led jihadists who commit their own abuses, last week shooting a seven-year-old boy for what they claimed was apostasy. And some of those fighters, too, have targeted civilians.

It is not as if the world has no evidence of Syria’s ordeal, which has killed an estimated 150,000 people. Syrians have issued a sustained, collective cry for help from what is now probably history’s most-documented man-made disaster. They capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.

Despite that, the world’s attention is drifting. Even as Syria’s epic suffering is remaking the human geography of the entire Middle East, and beyond, initiatives to ease the crisis have sputtered and failed to offer help. Hopes for an internationally brokered peace settlement have faded as Russian-American relations worsen.

António Guterres, head of the US refugee agency, said that is in part because there is no obvious path to a coherent global response. Given the world’s growing unpredictability, and competing priorities, “crises are multiplying and more and more difficult to solve”, he said. “Afghanistan is not finished. Somalia is not finished. It’s overwhelming.”

Syria is falling apart. Over the weekend, another vital centre of opposition life – the city of Yabroud, near the Lebanese border – fell to pro-government forces. Like Homs and Qusair, it has become a watchword for civilian suffering.

The country is threatened with de facto partition among the government, Kurdish militias and a patchwork of insurgent groups, some seeking to impose extremist Islamist rule. Criminal gangs profit from chaos, and pro-government militias threaten to slip from state control. A regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran further polarises the conflict.

Adding to the urgency is the growing scale of regional destabilisation. Nine million Syrians have been driven from their homes, according to the United Nations, 2.5 million of them into nearby countries.

“It’s not just a humanitarian issue, a need to feed people,” Dr Fouad Fouad, a Syrian doctor who studies the impact of the conflict, told a conference at the American University of Beirut last week. “It’s a historical, geopolitical issue.”

Aid workers are scrambling to refocus public attention on Syria. Most urgent is ending the conflict, they say; all else at best mitigates the disaster. At the same time, they fear that governments – including the US, the UN’s largest donor – could lose interest in financing the organisation’s largest aid appeal in history – $4.4 billion (€3.2 billion) for Syria in 2013 alone.

Private donations for Syrians have lagged far behind those for other emergencies, like the recent typhoon in the Philippines, international aid groups say. Yet, on Syria’s borders, no one can miss the flood of refugees or the inadequacy of the international response.

The crisis is spreading disease, upending neighbouring economies and creating a “lost generation” of Syrian children, who before the war almost universally attended elementary school. Now fewer than half are in school. Among refugees in neighbouring Lebanon, the figure is 12 per cent.

Analysts say 42 per cent of all Syrians, more than the population of New York city, have fled their homes. An equivalent catastrophe in the US would mean 131 million Americans on the move.

In Lebanon, an unstable country smaller than Connecticut, the UN has documented 962,000 Syrians registered for aid or awaiting registration. Lebanon hosts more refugees per capita than anywhere since famine-stricken Ethiopians flooded Somalia 34 years ago.

Just as staggering is the transformation of life inside Syria. Previously what is known in development parlance as a “middle-income country”, with functioning services and a sizeable middle class by regional standards. Now, about 700,000 homes are damaged or destroyed, railways idled, factories shuttered. The Damascus-based Syrian Centre for Policy Research puts unemployment at 50 per cent. With half of Syria’s hospitals destroyed, thousands have died from preventable causes. Several hundred, at least, have died of malnutrition-related causes.

The Syrian refugee crisis has not peaked. Unicef says 5.5 million children need aid, a number that has more than doubled in a year. Child refugees quintupled to 1.2 million, 425,000 of them younger than five. One in five Syrian girls in Jordan is forced into early marriage.

Unable to pay for medical care abroad, Syrians routinely venture back to the war zone to give birth, have surgery or get cancer treatment.

The majority of Syrian refugees surveyed by aid group Oxfam say they never expect to go home.

Syria’s collapse has other effects too. Poor Lebanese suffer from the loss of affordable medicines and healthcare they once got by crossing into Syria. Regional trade is gutted. In Jordan, increased water usage is depleting the supply, according to Mercy Corps, as the Zaatari refugee camp has grown into the world’s second-largest.

Last week in Shatila, an impoverished Beirut district now brimming with Syrians, Inas (16) groaned as a neighbour slung her over her shoulder like a sack and carried her upstairs.

With burns covering 40 per cent of her body when a shell struck her home in northern Syria, Inas cannot walk or bend. Treatment is not fully covered by UN refugee benefits, and she has spent weeks on journeys from hospital to hospital seeking an affordable discount.

She displayed her scaly, swollen feet, weeping as she recalled telling her fiancé, “Forget me, I don’t want you to marry me out of sympathy.”

The woman who carried her, Umm Joumaa (37), had lost her four youngest daughters to shelling. Three survived, scarred, like Inas, with painful burns. “Rather than throw myself from a window,” the mother said, “I should raise those beautiful girls.”
– ( New York Times )

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