Regime forces encircled Rastan and a handful of surrounding towns in north Homs, around 20km north of Homs city, more than two years ago. The UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered the last aid to the city over a year ago…until the end of last month.
On April 21, a 65-truck aid convoy with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations delivered food, medical supplies and water-treatment materials to Rastan’s population of 120,000, a mix of about half residents and the other half internally displaced Syrians.
The 100 truckloads of aid to Rastan was the largest aid delivery yet to a besieged town in Syria, says Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the ICRC in Syria.
“Until the siege is lifted, [humanitarian aid] will always be a temporary solution,” says Krzysiek in this candid interview with Syria Direct’s Samuel Kieke.
Krzysiek’s most recent visit to Rastan was his sixth to besieged areas in Syria, all of which are "like little prisons scattered amidst the war…and you can’t live like that.”
“There is a need for a political solution, no matter how...it’s something that is out of ICRC’s hands,” the spokesman says.
“What we deliver will not solve the real problem of this country and of these people.”
Q: The ICRC is involved in medical evacuations from towns that are completely encircled by regime forces. What does the process look like when you are negotiating to get someone out of an encircled area?
Every single medical evacuation from a besieged place requires no small amount of negotiations and coordination with both sides. It’s like this, unfortunately. It takes time. But you cannot really skip it because how can you if the people with whom you have to negotiate decide whether or not they let you pass the checkpoint?
We need to keep that in mind, that this is Syria and in Syria the humanitarian aid is an extremely difficult task. Are we happy or comfortable with that, no. Of course not. Because we know that very often, as we have seen in the case of Madaya, we just manage to do something and more times don’t manage to do anything, it’s just too late. It’s something we have to live [with]. I mean it’s a burden on us and it feels like we are failing the people, and very often we do. But we cannot fly over those checkpoints. We must negotiate.
“The boy came at 5am to collect the cartons and trash left after the offloading of our trucks so his mum could [build a fire to] prepare a morning tea for him.” – Pawel Krzysiek
The Red Cross cannot make promises, because the Red Cross is a neutral humanitarian organization. We don’t really get involved in the politics and the political negotiations. And unfortunately, the sieges today, it’s a matter of politics. I’m sorry to say this. I mean, every day we will call for lifting those sieges, because that is the only solution for those people. It’s the only solution for many to survive.
But unfortunately we don’t hold that power to demand from the parties to lift those sieges. They must be lifted, bottom line—they must.
This is something that we do in a very confidential manner and it is very, very necessary to do that in order to maintain the trust of all parties. But what I can tell you, for instance, we had the very similar case of the boy who needed the evacuation in al-Houla when we went there last time, and I was personally there in al-Houla. We visited him.
We registered all of his details. And then you take those details and you try and pull all the strings that you have in the certain area to take the permissions and to facilitate the evacuation of this person. In al-Houla, we succeeded. But in Rastan unfortunately we failed. It can go either way, but we do it based on contacts that we have. And as you know, as a neutral organization, we have the contacts on both sides, and this is how we work.
Q: Can you talk about what you saw while you were in Rastan during the aid delivery and what you heard from the people there who you talked to?
I witnessed huge despair. This is my sixth visit to the besieged places in Syria. In every place like that I see and I hear a huge despair. The physical and mental pressure on those people... It’s like little prisons scattered amidst the war and conflict and fighting and shelling and mortars and insecurity…and you can’t live like that. Let’s take Rastan or Talbisa, the only thing they know how to do is to farm.
But now they can’t. They can’t do that anymore. They do it for their own consumption, but their vast farmlands became the front lines now. It’s difficult to get seeds. Irrigation channels are blocked or destroyed because of the fighting. You know the people, even if they produced the goods, well they are besieged so they can’t really sell it. So they lost the sense of who they were and what they knew how to do.
Talbisa is where 30,000 people lived before. In the past couple of months and as a result of the fighting, both Rastan for instance and Talbisa have seen a doubling of the local population. An estimated 60,000 internally displaced people fled northern, rural Hama from the fighting, only to be besieged in Rastan. And a further 50,000 went to Talbisa, doubling the population of those places already overstretched in terms of resources.
The people are overstretched right? They already have scarce resources. And the displaced people came without anything. They don’t have lands to farm. They don’t have belongings. They put an enormous pressure on the host communities. And I have to say, the people in Rastan are great hosts. The sense of solidarity and support for each other is amazing. But this is hard.
That is why, for many of those people humanitarian aid is the only kind of life pipeline. That is why, for us, what is important is that we have to come back. What we bring there is not enough. Of course it will not be enough, because the only solution for those people is lifting the sieges and allowing regular and unimpeded humanitarian access. That’s it. It is not a solution for the people of Madaya, Zabadani, al-Fuaa, Kafariya, Rastan, Talbisa to come only once and go. We have to continually replenish their stocks. We need to bring more medicine.
In Talbisa, we brought them dialysis sessions, but they will finish so we need to bring more. You can only do that if you have regular access, bottom line. Until the siege is lifted, it will always be a temporary solution. Humanitarian aid will not solve the Syrian conflict. There is a need for a political solution no matter how...it’s something that is out of ICRC’s hands. What we deliver will not solve the real problem of this country and of these people.
Q: What does neutrality mean to ICRC?
This is the core of our operational model. This organization has been following the very same rules since the time of its establishment, which was over 160 years ago.
Neutrality matters. It matters in every single conflict. Why? Because we are at war and this war is not only happening on the ground or in the skies, but also, more and more, is spreading to public opinion.
So basically, neutrality for us means that we have to talk to everyone whenever this is possible and enjoy their full confidence. How this is being achieved? Well this is being achieved by a very cautious approach, and to be perceived as an organization that is disengaged, but again I stress that this is being disengaged from any sort of political debate around the issues and not from the suffering of the people. I want to make it clear: Disengaging from political debate, doesn’t mean that we are disengaged from the human suffering. On the contrary, we’ve been very vocal about how much people are suffering in places like Rastan or Madaya or any other besieged place.
As in each conflict, you have to negotiate, you have to cross the frontlines, you have to cross the checkpoints. But this requires negotiations. This requires the confidence of one party. Once this aid is allowed by this party, you have to enjoy the confidence of the other parties who control the other side of the frontlines so you can actually deliver this aid without actually putting your staff at risk.
As you remarked, some organizations, some groups have been way more vocal. That’s fine. That’s their choice. I don’t think we contradict those organizations on whatever side of the frontline they are. I think, on the contrary, we complement it. For us what matters is that instead of pointing a finger in one or another direction, we will be able to actually deliver to those people. That we will be fueling the debate with what we have seen on the ground, by talking with the people, by talking to the doctors, by talking to the pregnant woman who in Rastan who delivered [her baby] in a converted garage. In order to do that, we need to access this place.
Our mandate and status derive from international humanitarian law, so we are actually invited into the country so we can provide the humanitarian assistance. We have to be here for the Syrian people.
The media takes stands, and very often—and I say it totally without any sort of grief or resentment—but very often the media on one side or another takes a stance.
If we have such a politicized and polarized environment, there is a need today for an organization that is neutral, but who despite that will stand for the people, whoever they are, while still keeping their operational capacity and presence. Imagine if we were vocal on this side or on that side, would be really able to cross the frontlines and deliver in safety? Do we want to risk our ability to help millions of people as we do in Syria? I don’t think we do.
And of course, let me make it clear, we are not saving Syria, we are not saving the Syrian people. We have to be modest whatever we do, and every month we do more and more, but it is still not enough. Every month there are more needs, all over Syria. Not only in Rastan, Talbisa, Madaya, Zabadani, Fuaa, Kafariya, Darayya, Ghouta—not only in the besieged places—but also in the so-called governmental places. There are the people from Darayya who are in rural Damascus and they are living in tents or in unfinished buildings in terrible conditions. If we don’t help them, who will?
This approach works. Look at our work in the prisons. I mean if you visit the prison, you are granted certain confidence from the authority who allows you to visit. What is your objective? Your objective is not to go to the prison, see what you see, go on record and speak about that. Your objective is for the sake of the prisoners to come back.
In order to come back, you need to work on the confidential dialogue that will help you to enjoy the confidence of the authorities who hold the power in this place. And that’s the thing and why ICRC has been so effective in the prisons. People know that what we see is between us and them and if we have to talk or influence someone, we will do it tahit li tahit, you know bilaterally in confidential dialogue. And maybe it will take more time, but at least it will allow us to bring hope every time we visit those prisoners on a regular basis. And believe me, besieged places and many other places inside Syria are not so different from the prisons in terms of approach.
Earlier this month we came back from Madaya and after four convoys and approximately one month, we’ve seen the difference since the very first time I was going, you know? When I first went I saw the hunger, I saw the terrible scenes. And now, when we went four months after, of course, not everyone enjoys the comfort of getting better because there are cases who need the specialized treatment and we are not there yet, so it’s not that I am saying everything is great, no. It’s still life under siege and it’s still difficult.
But you see an improvement of the situation. But what these people really need, and what this little girl once told me in Moadhamiyet, they need to leave the siege behind. [Ed:. Moadhamiyet a-Sham is a rebel-controlled Damascus suburb, located 12km southwest of the capital’s center. Despite signing one of the first local truces with the regime in 2013, al-Assad’s forces re-imposed the blockade.]
They need to go to school and university and they need to get the treatment that they require and the medicines they need without really hoping for the humanitarian organizations to access that place. This is what the people need.