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As Damascus Becomes A Battleground Again - Is There Hope For The Future Of Syria?

23/03/2017 17:08

After periods of heavy fighting, the district of Al Qaboun had in recent years lived in relative peace under a truce between rebels and government forces, experiencing only occasional breaches.

Everything changed at the end of February. This relatively quiet, poor neighbourhood in the north-east of Syria's capital descended in full-blown terror ahead of an intensive military campaign.

"People were frightened to death. Even before there was any military activity rumours were circulating. There was an atmosphere of fear... the residents had seen what had happened elsewhere in the last four months: it was now Al Qaboun's turn", recounts an aid worker from a local organisation, supported by Christian Aid.

The aid worker [who cannot be named for security reasons], explained further: "After Daara was bombed last year, and then Wadi Barada, where the water source for Damascus is, Al Qaboun is now the sixth chapter of Damascus suburbs being targeted one by one."

The community reacted quickly to the threat. First women and children, and later the men, packed up their lives and left. In a matter of just two weeks 4,600 families had fled, more than 24,000 people. They escaped by whatever means possible, whether by truck, motorbike, on foot or via tunnels to the relative 'safety' of Eastern Ghouta and Barzeh - which were also under fire. They found shelter with relatives if lucky, but also slept in parks and in schools and other public buildings.

For most, this will not be the first time they have been displaced. Most people have moved at least three times before to escape death. As the aid worker puts it: "There is no certainty... nothing bright on a horizon... they want to be in a position just to live - at least not to die."

Six years on from the start of the conflict, the prospects remain bleak. Last year, on the fifth anniversary, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said: "Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world."

But a year later the crisis has still not abated: the numbers in desperate need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria have only increased. In the last 12 months, the world watched while barrel bombs dropped on civilians; while children's bodies were pulled from dust and rubble; while populations of besieged towns faced starvation as humanitarian relief was denied to them; while an Amnesty report revealed that thousands have been detained and executed.

And at the end of 2016, the world watched while rebel-held Eastern Aleppo was bombed beyond recognition. The forced displacement of civilians from Aleppo in December felt at the time like a crescendo to over five years of horror.

However, the record has played on, and it is civilians and civil society that have again and again borne the brunt. The statistics bear this out (13.5 million in need of humanitarian aid), but these incomprehensible numbers also seem to overshadow the human impact. However, what the statistics also fail to reveal is the resilience of Syrian civil society.

When we read about food being delivered in besieged towns and cities, about doctors and nurses risking their lives to care for the wounded when hospitals are being targeted, about education continuing in underground classrooms, this is down to Syrian civil society.

One such civil society organisation is Christian Aid's partner, assisting families who have fled Al Qaboun: it is staffed by Syrians who, before the war, came from all walks of life. Syrian civil society does not just exist within the national borders. The millions displaced overseas have also played an active part in building NGOs to support their fellow Syrians trapped at home: organisations that promote equality, diversity, education and inclusion.

Civil society is "the last hope (Syria) has left", as Assaad al Achi of Syrian NGO Baytna ('Our House') put it, during last week's Chatham House conference on Syria, held in London.

When a peace settlement is finally reached, Syria cannot move forward without including this new emboldened, empowered civil society. This is why any discussions on the future of Syria, such as at the upcoming Supporting the future of Syria and the Region Brussels conference, (April 4-5), must include these voices and reflect the mosaic of Syrian society that has bloomed out of the ashes of this crisis.

Within Syria, Christian Aid is supporting partners provide hot meals to people recently displaced by the bombing in Damascus. Outside of Syria, Christian Aid is supporting vulnerable refugee communities in Lebanon, Iraq and Europe.

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