In Syria, Darkness Takes On New Meaning After Four Years of War

March 11, 2015
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In this Jan. 30, 2015, file photo, a Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani. (AP)

The Syrian civil war enters its fifth bloody year this weekend. And the future looks dark for Syrians — both metaphorically and literally.

New satellite images, released by a coalition of 130 humanitarian and human rights organizations on Wednesday, show that 83 percent of the lights over Syria have gone black since the conflict began. Syrians fleeing the violence have left behind darkened homes, while fighting has destroyed buildings and power infrastructure, leaving broad patches of the nation without electricity.

As the animation below shows, many of the areas engulfed in darkness have been the hardest hit by the conflict. Aleppo, for example, has lost 97 percent of its lights. Idlib and Raqqa have each lost 96 percent. The exceptions, controlled in part or completely by the government, included Damascus and Quneitra, which showed declines of 35 percent and 47 percent respectively.

“Satellite imagery is the most objective source of data showing the devastation of Syria on a national scale,” said Dr. Xi Li, lead researcher of the project conducted by scientists at Wuhan University in China and the #WithSyria coalition, which includes nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Save the Children, Oxfam and Amnesty International.

Li’s research has shown a correlation between the decline in nighttime lights and humanitarian disasters. “I have worked on this issue for three years,” he said, “and the answer is the decline is always caused by humanitarian disasters including armed conflict, genocide and economic collapses.”

The images are just the latest in a string of reports released this week on the state of the conflict in Syria. Taken together, they paint a bleak picture of the scale of destruction and human suffering left behind by four years of brutal warfare. Here are several main findings from those reports:

Displaced

Before the war, Syria was estimated to have a population of 22 million people. Four years of bloodshed have displaced 7.6 million Syrians within the country, and 3.8 million people have left the country altogether. Those still living in Syria face daily bombardments, food shortages and a crumbling medical infrastructure. While some who leave find safety in other countries, they also face the risks of being trafficked, abused, robbed or even drowning in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting the journey, according to a report conducted by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) with support from the United Nations.

Besieged and In Need of Aid

An estimated 12.2 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, but around 4.8 million of them live in areas where they aren’t able to access basic medical services or supplies, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Of the nearly 5 million living in hard-to-reach areas, UNOCHA estimates that around 212,000 Syrians live in besieged areas — 185,500 of them under siege by government forces.

More than 2 million Syrians in Aleppo and Daraa provinces have been denied water and electricity by either the government or rebel groups, according to the U.N.

“People are not getting the help they need,” said Dr. Majed Abu Ali, who works with the Syrian American Medical Society. “But they are also starving, dying from cold, dying from bombs. There are too many ways to die in Syria.”

Also read: New Reports Detail Assad’s Brutal Tactics in Syria

Ali, who used a pseudonym to protect his identity, lived and worked as a dentist in Eastern Ghouta, a besieged area near Damascus, until he left last summer. He described what it’s like to live under siege:

“You can imagine how much you would struggle to live without electricity for 24 hours, not being able to make a cup of coffee. Now imagine how hospitals, schools and factories … have been without fuel for years? Not only without fuel, but without flour, food and supplies.”

Killed, Wounded, Sick

More than 210,000 Syrians have been killed since the war began, and according to a report by the SCPR this week, another 840,000 people have been wounded.

The destruction of Syria’s health care infrastructure has taken a disastrous toll on life expectancy, cutting it by 20 years, from 79.5 years before the war to 55.7 years in 2014.

The group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) tracks the destruction of hospitals and clinics in Syria, both by the government and rebel groups. More than 180 medical facilities have been subjected to 233 attacks since 2011, according to PHR’s latest report, a vast majority of them — 88 percent — by government forces. At least 610 medical personnel have been killed, 97 percent of them by government forces.

“Doctors have been in the crosshairs from the beginning,” Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs, told FRONTLINE. “Around 70 percent of the doctors who were in pre-war Syria have actually left — a lot of them after being detained and tortured.”

Attacks on medical facilities — documented below in a map by PHR — and health care workers have had a ripple effect on Syrian civilians. “With dwindling numbers of medical facilities and providers, an attack could demolish the only hospital and kill the only doctor serving an entire neighborhood,” PHR’s report, released on Wednesday, noted. “For every additional doctor killed or hospital destroyed, there are hundreds — even thousands — of Syrians who have nowhere to turn for health care.”



Brown said conflict-related injuries have become nearly impossible to treat because of lack of equipment. Meanwhile, diseases that were chronic but survivable before the war — such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer — have become lethal.

And the long-term implications mean that preventable childhood diseases, including polio and measles, are now common among Syrian children. Not having access to health care or adequate nutrition means many children grow up stunted and will have life-long health problems.

“I think you’ll see at least a generation to really recover from this destruction of the health care system,” Brown said.

Brown noted that while doctors have always been targets in Syria’s conflict, the government has turned to shelling and barrel bombs — cheap, destructive, indiscriminate weapons — to target medical facilities over the last year, compounding the problem.

The group Doctors Without Borders, which operates six medical structures in Syria, released a report this week about daily life under barrel bombs. It said, “Barrel bombings destroy people just as they destroy homes, shredding limbs and tearing bodies apart.”

Syrians in Aleppo live in a constant state of fear and look forward to cloudy days when the bombings stall, according to Doctors Without Borders. In January of this year alone, the group said, there were up to three bombing attacks a day.

Out of School, Out of Jobs

Joblessness has become rampant in Syria after four years of fighting. The country’s unemployment rate was around 15 percent in 2011, near the start of the conflict. By the end of 2014, the unemployment rate hit 58 percent, according to the SCPR. That means 3.72 million Syrians do not have jobs.

The dangers of war, the destruction of schools and the flight of teachers have reduced Syria’s rate of education as well. According to the report, 48.6 percent of school-age children were out of school during the 2013 to 2014 year. Next year is projected to be worse, with 50.8 percent of students expected to miss school.

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