Aid organizations face increasing dangers in Syria


October 3, 2013

By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Jacob Wirtschafter

October 3, 2013

AMMAN: International organizations are facing increasing danger accessing civilians as the ongoing war and related collapse of the Syrian economy have heightened the urgency for humanitarian assistance.

“One of our key activists in the north has been detained by the government for the past four or five months,” said Ayman S. Jundi, the treasurer and general secretary of Syria Relief, a U.K.-based charity serving all sides of the conflict. “We have definitive reports that he has been quite seriously tortured, put in solitary confinement. He is in a really bad way.”

A statement approved by the United Nations Security Council Wednesday urged the Syrian government to take immediate steps to allow humanitarian organizations to conduct their relief efforts throughout the country.

Calling for safe and unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance in all areas under their control and across conflict lines,” the United Nations’ non-binding statement puts the pressure on the Assad regime to allow greater access to aid groups.

“The statement is an important step,” said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser to Human Rights Watch. “What’s needed now is implementation by all sides.”

Following the resolution, Abrahams’ organization launched its “Inside the Black Hole” campaign, to draw attention to aid workers and others professionals imprisoned while doing their jobs in Syria. Speaking to Syria Direct from Berlin, Abrahams said that “some opposition groups have detained people without regard for basic rights, including aid workers.” 

As the sole organization with formal approval from the Syrian government to work on the ground, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent faces accusations of being pro-regime. In September, an unnamed armed group detained a Red Crescent volunteer in the northeastern city of a-Raqqa, where the Free Syrian Army and the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Sham have been struggling for control 

Still, the international group reports, “we cannot access any area without the Syrian government’s approval.”

As winter arrives, starvation remains a concern, especially in government-blockaded towns near the Syrian capital.

“Recently, the areas that we’re really struggling to get food into are the rebel-held areas outside of Damascus,” said Jundi, who points out that his charity serves civilians in need without regard for whom they may support in the war.

“These small communities have been besieged for the past ten or eleven months. Until recently we’ve been able to get stuff through, but it’s getting increasingly difficult and increasingly hazardous for our workers there,” he continued. 

Rebels who control areas where they have not put measures in place for humanitarian agencies are “making conditions for civilians [in these areas] worse,” Abrahams said.

Adnan al-Sikh, a resident of Moadimiyet e-Sham, a blockaded Damascus suburb where videos have surfaced of residents eating leaves, told Syria Direct about the dire needs of his city. “The last meal I ate was just bulgur and soup,” he said. “Most people here have no food supplies, except olives from our own trees. Even this, most families don’t have any more.

In New York, Syria’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, said the statement vindicates regime claims that rebels have interfered in humanitarian work.

“For the first time,” Jaafari said, “we find a clear reference to the violations and acts of killing and terrorism committed by the armed terrorist groups in Syria.”

The best way to address the humanitarian crisis is to stop the killing,” said Human Rights Watch’s Abrahams, “so we’re calling on the UNSC to refer the Syria conflict to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That would make it possible for the international court to prosecute those who commit atrocities, and we think that can help temper conduct and protect civilians.”           

Moadimeyet photo 1002

Moadamiyet al-Sham – October 2, 2013. Photo courtesy of Local Council of Moadamiyet al-Sham.

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