Four years since the start of the Syria crisis, Nick Harrop, CAFOD’s World News Officer, looks at what life is like for those living in Syria.
“I am worried for my children,” says a mother who fled to Lebanon. “They need to get an education. But I don’t feel safe to go home. Sadly I feel there is no future for my children in Syria now.”
“For four years, we have been living in the depths of the cold in a bloody war,” says a CAFOD partner delivering aid in Syria. “War has left us without any way to defend ourselves against the cold. We have no electricity most of the time, no fuel and no gas. We have no way to stay warm apart from putting on many layers of clothes, which don’t help so much when it’s minus eight degrees.”
“We used to have a home and a settled life,” says a father who has fled to a refugee camp in Jordan. “Our children went to school each day. But now…” – he shakes his head – “there is nothing left.”
How the crisis started
It is four years since a small group of demonstrators staged a protest against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Within days, the protests spread, and several people were killed. It was a serious political crisis, and a significant moment in the so-called Arab Spring, but few would have imagined that it would turn into the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the twenty-first century.
The numbers of people caught up in the Syria crisis today are staggering. Since 15 March 2011, more than 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes. In 2014 alone, an average of 200 people – the equivalent of two double-decker busloads – were killed every day. Right now, 4.6 million people – the equivalent to the populations of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield and Cardiff combined – live in areas largely cut off by the fighting. In neighbouring Iraq, a further five million people are in need of aid.
What life is like for Syrians
But the numbers only tell one side of the story. Behind them are countless tales of suffering, of persecution, of families torn apart, as well as of courage and of compassion. What’s it like to have your whole way of life destroyed because you happen to have the wrong beliefs or live in the wrong place? What’s it like to see your child drop out of school, with no prospect of returning? What’s it like to sacrifice everything for the sake of your family?
What’s it like to live in a leaking tent that’s battered by snow and freezing winds? Or to wade through ice-cold flood water without any shoes? That has been the situation for many Syrians this winter, as the region experienced sub-zero temperatures and devastating snowstorms. A number of children have frozen to death, or been killed in fires as families tried to keep their shelters warm.
What’s it like to live without light? Satellite images show that three-quarters of the lights over Syria have been extinguished, plunging streets, homes and hospitals into darkness. Imagine living in that darkness, without the prospect of peace, trying to find reasons for hope.
Four years on, one of the most shocking things about the crisis in Syria is the fact that we aren’t more shocked by it. Days can go by without newspapers mentioning it at all. We sometimes hear horror stories about the latest atrocities carried out by the extremist group known as Islamic State, but we are rarely reminded about the situation for the vast majority of people who are trying to carry on, trying to live with dignity, trying to do the best they can.
The situation on the ground is complex, with Syrian government forces continuing to fight a range of opposition groups, some of which are also fighting each other. The US and the UK, which came close to bombing government forces in 2013, are now bombing the extremist opposition. The peace process that began in Geneva in January 2014 disintegrated without a breakthrough, and subsequent attempts to organise negotiations have had little success.
Since 2011, the solidarity and donations of Catholics in England and Wales have made a huge difference to our brothers and sisters caught up in the crisis. Thanks to that support, CAFOD has worked with local Church partners to provide food, shelter, healthcare, emergency supplies, education and counselling to tens of thousands of people in urgent need. But their situation is unlikely to improve while the fighting continues.
As part of #WithSyria – a coalition of more than 130 organisations around the world – CAFOD is calling for world leaders to prioritise the search for a negotiated solution, rather than simply drop bombs. We are also calling for a greater humanitarian response, and for aid to be allowed to reach those most in need.
Today, as we commemorate another year of suffering in Syria, please pray for an end to the crisis. And, if you have five minutes, please sign the #WithSyria petition to help shine a light on Syria, and to remind politicians that, however difficult it is to see a way forward, they must keep striving for peace.
Nick’s blog was also published in The Catholic Times.