War in Syria: Three years on

Friday 14 March 2014 21.45

By Paul Cunningham, Europe Correspondent

The United Nations regularly updates its ‘fact sheet’ on the war in Syria – a conflict which is now entering its fourth bloody year. The UN information bulletin is a grim statistical record, and the figures are only increasing. Consider these three shocking extracts:

- 9.3 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance;
- 6.5 million people inside Syria have fled their homes;
- Another 2.5 million have left the country altogether.

Reports from UN’s children’s fund UNICEF contain more horror stories:

- The number of kids in need doubled to 5.5 million in 2013 alone;
- Up to 1 million children are living under siege in Syria;
- 10,000 children are estimated to have been killed to date.

During an assignment with cameraman Pol Reygaerts, I met some of the quarter of a million Syrian refugees who fled to Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq. Authorities there say more are arriving every day.

64th Street

In the largest refugee camp – Domiz – I met Shanaz Hussein who fled from the Syrian city of Qamishli. She’s living on what’s called 64th street. It is, in reality, nothing more than a mud track which transforms into a sludge when the torrential Spring and Autumn rains hit. Shanaz Hussein’s new home is a tiny metal shack which she shares with 9 members of her extended family.

She told me that they fled from their home when the Syrian airforce bombed the neighbourhood. A nine month old child she knew was crushed to death after the family house took a direct hit. Her family first fled to Damascus but were forced to leave when car bombs went off in the suburb they had taken sanctuary. They decided the only safe option was life exile.

Shanaz Hussein

Syrians are not just fleeing violence perpetrated by government forces. At a river border post between Iraq and Syria, I met Hassan Hamid. He had literally just stepped onto Iraqi soil when we spoke, after having been ferried across the Tigres River with his wife and young child.

Syrian refugees arrive at Peshkabour border crossing

He said that his town had been surrounded by militias and now ‘no-one can sleep there.’ He told me: ‘There is no value on life there anymore.’ He managed to escape with his family but added some militias prevent civilians from fleeing.

At the UN headquarters in New York, a strategy to end the war has not materialised. Russia supports President Bashir al-Assad. Western countries back the opposition. Deadlock has been the result, as a river of blood continues to course its way through Syria.

In a rare moment of unity last month, the UN Security Council agreed that humanitarian aid should be able to reach all Syrian citizens in need. Sadly little has changed on the ground in the weeks since the unanimous vote was passed. That is probably to do with the fact that the Security Council couldn’t agree on what sanctions would apply in the event of non-compliance by any of the parties to the conflict.

Iraqi Kurdish flag at border

And so what is often called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis drags on. What that means in stark terms is more death and injuries; more people forced from their homes; and more refugees.

On my last morning in Iraq I met Azadin Mohamd Saad and his wife Sumea Amin from the Syrian town of Hassaka. They left in terror after it was bombed by Syrian airplanes. It was also taken over by militias like the al-Qaeda backed al-Nusra front. Azadin and Sumea left with just their children and the clothes they were wearing. Others have been prevented from leaving at all.

The family now lives in a tiny house in a satellite suburb of the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil. Their son has a neurological condition and requires regular hospital treatment. The family has yet to be registered as refugees, so receive little help from aid agencies. They have no money because Azadin is finding it tough to find work as a carpenter.

As we sat in their cold bare house, I asked the couple if they would consider returning to Syria. Not all parts of the country are at war, I reasoned. Sumea shook her head. She conceded it was ‘very very difficult’ to feed the family and keep everyone warm in their new home. Yet despite the hardship, she felt Iraq provided safety and security. They would only return home, she concluded, when the war was over.

But that could be a very long time. Asked if the conflict will be as bad next year as it is now, the EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva summed up the dark outlook when she said to me: ‘I hope for the best, but I fear the worst.’

About Paul Cunningham

Paul Cunningham is RTE's Europe Correspondent. He reports on all matters relating to the EU and European affairs for TV, Radio and Online.

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