Syrian Arab Red Crescent struggles with crossfire and scarce supplies to bring aid

A grassroots body of 3,000 volunteers helps Syrians of every allegiance

A convoy formed by a delegation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent carry humanitarian aid as they drive in Aleppo’s countryside. Photograph: Reuters

A convoy formed by a delegation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent carry humanitarian aid as they drive in Aleppo’s countryside. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, May 10, 2013, 01:00

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent distribution centre in Maysat district is a sorry place. One of the tent warehouses is empty and, in the other, most of the boxes of aid are awaiting collection by needy registrants.

A dozen desperate women in coats and headscarves, one carrying a month-old infant, shelter in the shade of the container that serves as an office in the compound, while 20 more thrust their documents at Ahmed, the supervisor.

“I will do my best,” he assures them, taking documents to volunteers checking eligibility on computers.

Last summer, a steady stream of men came, presented documents and received three boxes containing food, kitchen items and a health kit for five people for a month. These days applicants can receive aid once every two or three months.

Operations chief Khaled Erksoussi said the agency’s work is “very difficult and becoming more challenging.”

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) can reach areas in the north and east held by rebels. “But we are short of everything. The UN estimates there are six million in need but provides supplies for only two million. The Red Crescent societies in neighbouring Arab countries give nothing while the British, Norwegian and Dutch Red Cross societies contribute. But not Ireland.”

Sarc has 3,000 active volunteers and has lost 19 in the two-year conflict. “Indiscriminate firing is a major danger ... in cities. We get access when fighting settles down.”


No safe access
Earlier, the forces would fight for some time and stop, giving Sarc access but now “fighting is continuous and Sarc is not given safe access”.

“We have three jobs: give first aid 24/7 and support patients: provide relief; and ensure community health through mobile clinics. All the activities run in parallel, each with its own volunteers.

“The Sarc hopes to organise the chaos in the north” where there is ‘no co-ordination’ with the opposition which seeks ‘to give priority to families of armed people’. But we work on the principle of no discrimination. Need is the only criteria.

“Our mission is dynamic. We don’t stick to the book. In Idlib we support bakeries. In Aleppo we bring generators, transformers and water pumps for the city and chlorine for purification. We provide fibre optics to re-establish communications. We negotiate with armed people not to target hospitals, electricity pylons, water pumps, things that have no military purpose.

“The war has changed the Sarc’s mission. We are not from an international institution. We are from the people. If the area is controlled by the government, we are with the government; if the area is under rebels we are rebel opposition.

“The Sarc cannot pull out because our volunteers live there. We are on the ground. We hold talks on checkpoints to let convoys through. Rebels accompany convoys to prevent looting.

“Our two priorities are: don’t get shot and have enough material.”