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Politics of aid inside Syria increases suffering for those displaced by war

November 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Some 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced within the country due to the bloody Civil War and the ongoing violence has led to an increased level of suffering. Syrians that remain are in need of food, shelter and medical help. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports on the politics of aid in Syria.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: As the bloody civil war in Syria rages on, the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency today called on European and Gulf states to take in the growing number of refugees. He said some three million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and 6.5 million more have been displaced inside the country. As a result, the daily lives of regular citizens has drastically deteriorated.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News has this report on the increased suffering.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They look like such normal kids, but their families have fled to central Damascus from the suburbs, where they saw things no child should see.

“There was no life. Everything was dead,” he says. “Everyone was mourning their children who had been killed.”

“There was nothing but fighting and shelling,” she says. “And I didn’t have any friends to play with.”

At least they’re safe here. Every day, they go to classes at the center where displaced people learn multiple skills. Men’s grooming is popular. The project was originally from refugees from Iraq, but the cycle of misery in the Middle East has moved around.

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Now most of the Iraqis have gone home. One has stayed on to teach English to his former hosts. Syrians didn’t need food aid before the war. They do now. The women tell me everyday items such as sugar and chicken have increased sixfold or more. Getting supplies to Damascus is easy, but nearly half the places U.N. agencies are trying to reach are contested or in rebel hands.

MATTHEW HOLLINGWORTH, World Food Program: We’re moving thousands of truckloads of food every single month with thousands drivers. You have families at home who worry about them as well. And it’s — it’s frequently just a simple case that they are too frightened to go into particular areas until the fighting calms down.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Fighting and a government blockade are preventing food from reaching tens of thousands of civilians in the suburbs around the capital that are under rebel control. Many of these people have fled the Damascus suburbs, which are still besieged. Very little is getting in or out.

Over the summer, people there have been able to survive because they grow vegetables. But the winter is coming, and the fear is that the government will use food as a weapon of war and try and starve out both the rebel fighters and the residents.

These pictures of empty shelves are east Ghouta, a suburb controlled by the rebels and besieged by government forces for more than a year. Even vegetables seem to be running low now. People use firewood to cook because gas is in short supply. And, sometimes, even that’s too expensive.

Um Malek has been reduced to cooking on animal dung. Her husband hadn’t worked since he was wounded, so she uses her meager earnings as a seamstress to feed their three boys.

UM MALEK, Syria (through interpreter): We eat only one meal a day, and if we have some food, they can have soup in the morning. Some days, they do not eat. Only one meal the afternoon, that’s all. That’s what we can manage.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The country is crisscrossed with front lines. More than 2,000 rebel groups are fighting each other and the regime. Local Red Crescent volunteers are often the only ones who can persuade an angry man with a gun to let supplies in.

KHALED ERKSOUSSI, Arab Red Crescent: It comes to that guy on the checkpoint. And, sometimes, he is says, OK, you have the approval, but those people inside, they killed my brother, they killed my mother, they killed my father. I will never let you in. I will never let you deliver food for the people who are shooting at me. It comes to that.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Routine vaccination, 17 cases of polio, eradicated in Syria a decade-and-a-half ago, have now been confirmed. The crippling disease was apparently brought in by jihadi fighters from Pakistan, where it’s endemic.

HAMIDA LASSEKO, UNICEF: There was quite a central panic. This panic, in a way, was positive on our side because it helped us — it helped us to make the community realize that it is important to bring their children for vaccination, and also for the community to accept those vaccinators who are coming house to house.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Government and rebels are now allowing vaccines across the lines, but more food and other medicines are urgently needed. War has brought in its wake an era of hunger and disease that no Syrian could have imagined in this century.