Syria’s war: remaining population lives in devastation, illness and poverty

Conflict takes heavy toll as fear and crime grind down a dispersed people

Children playing at a makeshift settlement for Syrian refugees in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa valley. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 215,000 people have been killed since the start of the crisis in 2011, about  half of them civilians. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Children playing at a makeshift settlement for Syrian refugees in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa valley. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 215,000 people have been killed since the start of the crisis in 2011, about half of them civilians. Photograph: Jamal Saidi/Reuters

 

The four-year-old Syrian conflict has precipitated the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since the second World War. An estimated 200,000-220,000 have died, about one-third of them civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Nearly half the pre-war population of 23 million has fled or been displaced, and those affected by the war include 14 million children. In a report commissioned by the UN Development Programme and the UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), life expectancy has fallen from 75.9 to 55.7 years and 80 per cent of the population live in poverty – of whom 30 per cent suffer “abject poverty”.

The Human Development Index has fallen by nearly one-third, driving the country from a mid-ranking listing to 173rd of 187 countries. Economic losses to the end of 2014 are said to be $202.6 billion (€191 billion), 383 per cent of the 2010 gross domestic product.

Major urban areas, including 70 per cent of Aleppo, and the coastal cities of Tartous, Latakia and Banias, have been stabilised under government control. Localised fighting continues in the northern Idlib, Deir al-Zor, and Deraa provinces between the Syrian army and diverse militias, including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State which has imposed a reign of terror on the population in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc), which operates throughout the country, reports that 2014 was another year of “pain and suffering” for the people. Sarc is now providing aid to more than four million people a month. Its media co-ordinator, Vivian Tou’meh, told The Irish Times that Sarc now has 11,000 volunteers around the country, “more than ever before”, in spite of the deaths of 40 of them and the danger of being killed, wounded or kidnapped.

The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a range of non-governmental organisations and charities support Sarc, whose volunteers are on the ground in ambulances as first responders to violence, providing healthcare in mobile and stationary clinics, delivering food and medical supplies, installing water tanks, making bread, and offering psychological support to civilians.

Depopulated regions

Unwra has also made progress. Services are normal but stretched for Jaramana camp and Palestinians are returning to Qabr Essit camp near the town of Saida Zeinab (named for the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad). Residents may soon begin going back to Sbeineh and al-Husseiniya camps.

The Yarmouk district of the capital, with a pre-war population of 160,000 Palestinians in a built-up UN camp alongside a million Syrians, remains a war zone. Since December 2012, when insurgents swept in, driving out the majority of residents, 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian residents have suffered hunger and privation which Unwra has tried to alleviate with sporadic aid.

Wretched existence

“Yarmouk”, he stated, “is a microcosm of the conflict” with respect to besieged areas.

Another 5,000 Palestinians are trapped in Khan Eshieh, an Unwra camp encircled by armed groups poised to overrun the area. They, in turn, are encircled by government forces. Some residents are trickling out through insurgent and government check points, risking arrest at both. Young men fear conscription if they try to leave. They also fear what would happen to women and girls left behind.

While Yarmouk and Khan Eshieh remain among the worst Damascus districts for civilians, ceasefires have been secured between armed insurgents and the army in Muadamiya to the west and Barzeh to the northeast on the main highway to Homs, which is now open to traffic. In both places, armed insurgents remain while government forces are stationed on the periphery, controlling movement of people and goods in and out of the towns. Sarc teams regularly enter with food and medical supplies after negotiating entry with all sides.

Syria’s besieged face not only men with guns and lack of food, electricity, heat and medicine but profiteers seeking to exploit them and criminals determined to abuse them.

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