Syria's suffering

The human cost of a savage civil war is becoming increasingly unbearable

Damaged buildings in Daraya near Damascus 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Damaged buildings in Daraya near Damascus 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Muhammad Sidqi took a break from chopping the thick trees that sheltered Aleppo’s Sahur Park. The blisters on his hand made holding the heavy wooden axe painful. Its dull blade only prolonged the laborious task. Sidqi was one of many foraging for wood around Aleppo on a cold January day. What made him different though was his age – just 12 years old.
Throughout Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and some 310 kilometers (190 miles) from the capital, Damascus, those too poor to afford the skyrocketing costs of heating oil are sending their children to cut down trees in parks. They have sold off family heirlooms to buy bread.
The plight of those who have fled to refugee camps to escape the fighting is not much better.
Living on one hot meal a day, they spend most of their time sliding in muddy fields with no sanitation and electricity. The suffering in Syria’s civil war is leaving no one untouched. And with no end in sight, their agonies only grow with every passing day.
When the winter cold first hit Aleppo, Sidqi scavenged through abandoned schools and factories for wood. But after the residents of the city had pillaged everything – including the wooden paneling from ceiling beams – to heat their frigid homes, Sidqi’s family was forced to find alternative sources of wood.
Like many of Aleppo’s poor, they could not afford the increased costs of heating fuel.
Before the war, a liter sold for about 25 US cents. Today, however, with no access to government-subsidized fuel from regime controlled areas, the family would be forced to fork out about $1.50 for the same liter on the black market. In war-torn Aleppo, only the wealthy can afford such luxuries. “We need heat like everyone else,” Sidqi says, grimacing as he hoists the axe on his shoulder.
“What else can we do?” But while civilians are finding creative ways to alleviate hardships, doctors cannot.
They lack basic medicines to combat simple maladies such as whooping cough; and in a war where the regime has indiscriminately targeted anything that moves, they, too, have not been spared. In November, fighter jets flattened the Dar al-Shifa Hospital, killing more than 40 people. Of the 5,000 doctors who staffed Aleppo’s hospitals before the war, only 36 remain, according to a recent report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) entitled “Syria – A Regional Crisis.”
Those doctors who did stay now work in secret clinics where, to avoid regime reprisals, they only see a select number of patients. In a third-floor apartment in the neighborhood of Fardus, Dr. Hisham Maliki is examining a five-year-old boy. The child’s rough wheezing sounds like a braying horse – and is overshadowed only by the noise of the shelling in the distance. His mother offers him soothing words that do nothing to mask her worries. And Maliki is essentially at a loss too; without as much as simple penicillin to prescribe, he sends the boy away with some encouraging words that convince no one his ailment will pass anytime soon.
“Every day people show up with all kinds of problems,” the 43-year-old internal medicine specialist explains. “But we just don’t have much to offer them. This war is killing us so slowly; we feel every pain and cry.”
One thing everyone in Aleppo experiences is the rancid odor of the garbage that lines the streets. On Bab al-Nayrab Street, a mile-long stretch of refuse, piled two feet high, attracts rats and other disease-carrying vermin, further exacerbating the city’s already dire sanitary conditions. “We get nauseous and dizzy,” says Muhammad Qudsi, who lives in an apartment building across the street. “The kids don’t go out anymore.”
Few venture out to do much beyond the most routine chore of buying basic food.
Most stores have been closed, and those that are open run on diesel-powered generators since the city has been without power for more than six weeks. Business owners have fled for safer havens, leaving their employees with no wages to buy the basic staples they need. Some cannot get to work across the front lines into regime-held areas.
But most do not work because the economy has simply collapsed. Assembly lines in factories lie idle; and industrial zones have become barren ghost towns. With most of the urban poor unable to work, few earn the wages they need to pay for increasingly expensive basic goods.
It is a dilemma Ahmad Shufi grapples with daily. The 34-year-old used to work in the Sheikh Najjar industrial park, in a quarry.
Today, in the frigid air, his crane swings gently back and forth in the wind. “I can’t even afford to buy tea,” the longtime coffee drinker laments. “We drink sweetened water.
There’s not much else to do. We have no money.”
Aleppo bills itself as the oldest, continuously inhabited city on earth. But in a city whose suffering grows with every new hardship, people are leaving before the next disaster strikes. Everyday, some 3,000 Syrians flee their homes for Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The lucky ones with money head to Amman and Istanbul, where their cash affords them the comforts furnished apartments provide. The unfortunate head to one of two dozen refugee camps in neighboring countries, where conditions are spartan at best.
But their plight is still often better than the plight of those who end up at the Atama refugee camp, located just inside Syria on the Turkish border. There, potable water is hard to find; food supplies are erratic, if at all; and blankets are traded for bread to nourish growling stomachs.
Unlike in other camps along the frontier, international aid organizations cannot work in Atama without authorization from the Syrian government. But because the camp is located in a rebel-controlled area, the regime is loath to help its opponents alleviate the suffering Damascus claims they have caused. As a result, World Food Program and other large non-governmental organizations affiliated with the United Nations are prohibited from operating in Atama. Instead, small Western aid groups have tried to plug a gap that only seems to grow, with some 500 new refugees flowing into the camp on a daily basis. “We are reaching out to new groups every day,” says the camp’s manager, Yazkan Shishakly.
“But it takes time.”
Shishakly, and family members in Houston, Texas, have set up the Maram Foundation to help alleviate the hardships the war is causing. They eventually settled on funding Atama. “Every Syrian has a role to play in the revolution,” he says.
In a muddy patch of olive trees, Hamid Hillal, 34, is trying to find some food to feed his infant daughter. The meager rations Atama provides for breakfast are not enough to feed his family of 11 because each tent is allotted only six bags of food. “There is not enough for us to eat,” the laborer explains.
“We cannot feed everyone in the tent on the bags they give us.”
The problem, Western officials admit, will not subside anytime soon. “The situation is difficult in the camps,” admits Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “We wish more could be done.”
While Atama now hosts some 14,000 refugees, another 2.5 million Syrians are internally displaced within the country, according to the Syrian Red Crescent Society. Some fled their homes because fighting destroyed their neighborhoods; and others picked up and left because they could no longer afford living beyond their means. But, according to the IRC report, most of the refugees left because female family members were raped or threatened with sexual violence. “Rape is a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war,” the organization wrote.
As Syria descends deeper into chaos, violence is becoming a basic staple more abundant than bread. And as it does, the human cost of a war that will not end soon is becoming increasingly unbearable.