Horrors for Syrian civilians worsening as winter sets in
The old woman continued along the street, seemingly oblivious to the gun battle raging around her. Dressed almost completely in black, she was conspicuous against the off-white walls and the sand-coloured road.
Bullets whistled above her head, but she continued walking, without breaking stride or changing direction. I must say, I couldn’t blame her for paying the gun battle no attention.
We had been speaking to her only minutes earlier, and heard how she had lost her husband and her home to a government aerial attack. She had no money and was reduced to relying on a friend for charity, including a basement to live in.
I’m not sure I’d be too worried, either, about snipers and stray bullets if I had lost as much as she has. Ahmed, our interpreter, had begun to cry while relating the old woman’s tale. “They destroy our homes, kill our loved ones, and arrest [rape] our women,” he lamented.
It wasn’t the first time Ahmed had wept while translating a horror story from one of his people. There is much to weep about in Haram town in northern Syria, where I was a couple of weeks ago with two Goal colleagues who are managing the delivery of consignments of blankets and food to displaced families.
The evidence of conflict was everywhere: barely a building not pockmarked with bullet holes, and every house and shop badly damaged or completely blown apart. What was once a mosque had been reduced to piles of rubble, in the midst of which is a large crater.
A government bomb struck the mosque last month during Friday prayers, killing more than 70 people. Another bomb crater is beside the remains of a row of shops, where several other people were killed. About 700 government troops are stranded in a fort overlooking Haram. The fort is surrounded by rebel forces from the Free Syrian Army, who now control the town and the countryside around it.
As we approached the town centre (or what is left of it), there began an exchange of fire between the opposing sides. This soon developed into the gun battle that the old lady chose to ignore. Our local guides and interpreter kept us well out of harm’s way.
Haram once had a population of 22,000 people. But most fled the periodic bombardments with what they could carry to neighbouring towns and villages. The only remaining residents are those too old or infirm to run away and groups of heavily armed Free Syrian Army fighters, who ride around on motorcycles and pick-up trucks or man frequent roadblocks.
The FSA is a loose coalition of localised units, some of whose objectives, beyond toppling the al-Assad regime, appear to be quite different. It seems likely the fall of the government (which must surely happen) will mark only the end of the first phase of conflict in Syria, with religious and political differences within the FSA then bound to come to the fore.
What the fighters all have in common, and shared with our interpreter and guides, is a fear of being photographed or videoed, in case they or their families are identified and targeted by government.
This proved quite awkward for me, as part of my job was to gather photographs and video footage.
The civilians we met were invariably courteous and welcoming. As in any conflict, it is the civilian population that is suffering most in Syria. Of the estimated 20,000-30,000 people killed so far, the vast majority have been non-combatants.
But this tells only part of the story. At least 400,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. And 1.25 million other people driven from their homes are stuck inside Syria, not able to afford to flee far. Most are living in schools, mosques, or outdoors in makeshift shelters, often without access to clean water, food and medical care.
The UN estimates that 2½ million Syrian people are in need of humanitarian aid and it expects this number to rise to four million by the beginning of next year. Beyond Haram we encountered families living in cattle sheds, broken-down trucks and under trees.
Sometimes as many as three or four families were crammed into a single room. The government has cut off water and electricity supplies to many public buildings.
Parts of Syria can be very cold in winter, particularly in the north. Winter is setting in, and the plight of many of the people we met is becoming ever more acute. What I witnessed was extremely harrowing, but it was a mere snapshot of the situation right across Syria. In fact it wasn’t even that. Things are much worse elsewhere.
With a bit of effort and ingenuity, aid agencies can reach displaced people in the north. This isn’t true of most of the rest of the country, where numerous cities, towns and villages have been destroyed and their populations forced to flee en masse.
We avoided Haram town on our way back to the border with Turkey. I wonder if the old woman is still alive.
* David Adams is a media officer with Goal