Syria: let this fourth anniversary of the war be the last

by James Stapleton | @JesuitRefugee | Jesuit Refugee Service International
Friday, 20 March 2015 16:11 GMT

The JRS distribution centre in Aleppo provides emergency support – food baskets, mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits – to thousands of families every month. (Gebrail Saud / Jesuit Refugee Service)

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Beirut, 20 March 2015 – We rang in the New Year with whatever hope we could muster from inside and out, from our families, our communities, even from our enemies. We scraped it together, and we shared it among us in small rations, barely enough to go around. We prayed and dreamed that this would be the beginning of the end of the horror; that 2015 would put the past four years behind us and bring the long-awaited end to the blood on our hands – the lost fathers, the grieving mothers, the broken children, the destroyed cities and the squandered aspirations.

We hoped that those who are directly involved in the war at a regional and international level would find a way to end hostilities. We pleaded with them to stop bombarding civilians and humanitarian workers. We urged them to find a way to generate the political will to end the conflict through a negotiated solution. It seems our pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Instead, January and February have brought us the most brutal violence we have seen to date. Indiscriminate violence has rained down on us from all sides of the conflict – bullets, barrel bombs, shelling, missiles, mortars, rape, arbitrary arrest, kidnappings, torture, beheadings, and executions; an endless barrage of crimes against our humanity. As civilians, we have been stripped of our dignity and paraded before the world as a spectacle, while the international community conveniently has avoided taking full and proper responsibility for its role in the macabre scene playing out in Syria and the region.

In all honesty, it feels that we were closer to a solution in 2012/2013 than we are now in 2015. Both the beginning, and the end of this madness are two points so far out of sight that we can only see the darkness that stretches endlessly before us.

What hope do we have?

For our children – no future to offer.
For our elderly – unmarked graves, empty homes, the pain of burying children.
For ourselves – only crushed lives.

We migrate in millions, huddling together in cities that are not our own, piled on top of each other like tuna in cans. We rush into neighbouring countries that do not want us, that cannot sustain us, just in order to breathe air that does not reek of death. We take chances crossing seas to reach Europe knowing it could mean drowning. But what difference does it make? We are drowning in our own blood in Syria, why not drown in clean waters that do not taste so bitter?

These words barely sum up the tragedy and desperation that has become a daily reality for Syrians, now in their fourth year of one of the most brutal wars in the last century.

In Syria, the death toll mounts at an unchecked pace, estimated to be over 220,000 killed, more than one million injured and 12.2 million in need of urgent life-saving assistance. In Lebanon, one in four people are Syrian refugees, a total of nearly 1.2 million refugees in a country of only 4 million. This tiny country's infrastructure is on the brink of collapse after a continued influx over four years of refugees. Traditional hospitality across the region has worn thin and tensions are running high between host and refugee communities. Syrians feel trapped in the region, with nowhere else to flee for safety. The Moscow peace talks in January did not yet yield any concrete ways forward from any of the parties present.

Syrians feel more hopeless and divided than ever before. We feel simultaneously abandoned and attacked by everyone. When the JRS team in Aleppo was asked if they noticed an increase in airstrikes due to the international coalition strikes against ISIS their reply was:

"Do you think we know the difference when they come and drop bombs? It doesn't matter who is dropping a bomb; it's all the same to us."

In the words of a father from Homs, "We Syrians prefer to stay in Syria. We love our homeland, but it has become unbearable. If it is not the bombs, we'll die from hunger. Even with a job I cannot afford to feed my family due to rising prices and shortages. I feel that each day there is less hope for us."

JRS urges those powerful actors within the international community – namely France, Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UK and the US – to set aside national interests for the common good, pushing for the cessation of violence against civilians and humanitarian workers by all parties and paving the way for serious political dialogue. The concerted effort of the international community would generate the political will to find a negotiated solution to the conflict.

A crisis of this magnitude has placed unprecedented stress on the humanitarian system. It is not only a matter of funding; traditional approaches to handling the conflict have proven insufficient after four years of increasing violence. The current humanitarian capacity of the UN and INGO framework cannot meet the needs of the Syrian people, nor those of the neighbouring communities. More needs to be done to access these people through grassroots organisations and civilian networks inside Syria.

International donors ought to support the humanitarian response that has developed organically amongst Syrian society, because these are where sustainable solutions lie. Empowering and equipping Syrians to find their own solutions and meet their own needs within the country is crucial. However, if the violence against civilians does not stop, then nothing can be done to stop people from fleeing for their lives, and it becomes yet another lost opportunity to stand by Syrians in their quest for a peaceful outcome.

Our plea to the world is this: "let us not celebrate a fifth anniversary of the Syrian conflict."

Nawras Sammour SJ, JRS Syria Country Director