* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Iraj is a 6-year-old girl that will forever stay etched in my memories. On my last trip to Jordan I met Iraj and her family after they fled Syria after Iraj’s life was changed forever. Iraj was out picking flowers when she was hit by a sniper’s bullet and lost her leg as a result of her injuries. Our team in Jordan fitted her with a prosthesis and the little girl can now walk again but her family has struggled getting her accepted in a school given her disability.
The tragedy behind Iraj’s story is shared by millions of Syrians displaced by the ongoing conflict. The numbers related to this crisis are so big, it can be hard to think of them as individual stories, specific families, unique faces... Each story we hear has one thing in common: explosive weapons are always part of their heart-breaking account.
In Handicap International’s last report, ‘Qasef: Escaping the Bombing’, the people we have spoken to identify explosive weapons as the leading cause for millions of Syrians to flee their home.
Most of the time families are subject to multiple displacements. I was shocked to learn that, in some cases, the family can be displaced up to 25 times by successive attacks before finding a safe refuge. This causes extreme poverty and serious psychological distress. “Each time we tried to return to the house, but we could not stay because of the bombing. […] We had to move to other cities where armed forces had agreed not to attack. But the agreement was always broken and we had to move again. There is no safe place in Syria” explains 20-year-old Ahmed, who found refuge in Jordan after being hit by shrapnel and suffering from a brain injury during bombing in Syria.
Ahmed’s sentiment that “there is no safe place in Syria” is universal among Syrian civilians interviewed in this report.
Bombing destroys everything. Even Syrians not directly affected by the attacks are forced to flee in order to survive and rebuild their lives. For many people who survive the immediate effects of an attack, explosive weapons become the driving cause for them to flee. Besides causing horrific injuries, explosive weapons spread terrors, make people fear for their lives and destroy vital infrastructure. Shelters, hospitals and schools are being destroyed by bombs. Water and electricity networks are also ruined leading to food and water insecurity.
Many of the Syrians we interviewed have injuries from the conflict and have had to leave Syria to seek adequate treatment for their conditions. The lack of hospitals, medical personnel, and maternity services endangers all Syrians, particularly women and their new-born children.
The story of Aisha really sticks in my mind. Aisha had to give birth alone during a bombing as the only midwife left in her village was forced to flee. After giving birth, Aisha had to hide in a basement for 12 hours with her new-born because of the bombing. “I bled for 20 days and my baby was also in critical condition.” She eventually found help in Jordan where doctors told her that her baby’s long-term development will suffer from this complicated birth.
Aisha’s baby will bear the impacts of war for life. And it’s not just Aisha. The explosive weapons that are being used will have a long term impact on a generation of Syrians.
Civilians exposed to the effects of explosive violence are marked for life. As 36-year-old Zeinah, who lost a leg after being injured by a rocket, tells us, “The war had an impact on us, and not just the physical injury. The emotional impact is much worse”. Zeinah’s story is particularly telling. She explains how, after a bombing near her children’s school, her young niece was so shocked when seeing a man lying on the ground in his own blood, that she started laughing instead of crying. “We started shaking her until she came to herself, and then she started crying” explains Zeinah.
Indeed the impact on the mental health of civilians exposed to the effects of explosive violence is extremely worrying. “One of my relatives wakes up every day and grabs her children, one on each side and stares at the sky all day, scared that a bomb will drop on them. She doesn’t eat or drink.” explains Kareem who found refuge in Jordan with his wife and five children.
Children are the first victims of this conflict and are particularly vulnerable. Their parents report nightmares, skin problems and hysteria due to their exposure to constant airstrikes and bombardments.
The tragedy of each of these stories is not lost on me. What kind of world do we live in when we can sit by and watch innocent civilians die, run for their life, suffer injuries and violations and struggle for basic needs like food and medicine?
The large-scale use of explosive weapons in populated areas has had a devastating effect on people’s lives, and contributes significantly to the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen for decades. With more than 1.5 million casualties in Syria, an entire generation is going to suffer the sequels of this horrific conflict for many years to come.
With war comes responsibility. There are international rules that must be enforced – all states have a responsibility to ensure international humanitarian law is upheld and enforced. The international community must ensure protection and life-saving assistance in response to the immediate needs of Syrian refugees and all victims of explosive weapons, from all impacted areas and wherever they are. Warring parties must immediately cease all attacks on civilians and civilian facilities, and end the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, particularly the use of banned weapons such as cluster munitions and landmines.
In September 2015, Handicap International launched an international campaign to end attacks on civilians. We are calling on states to sign a political declaration to bring an end to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and to recognise the suffering of civilians.