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The Conversation: Delivering Aid in the Crossfire

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and a 27-year-old Syrian field officer for an international aid organization who wished to be identified only as “Kadar” *(not her real name**).*.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

Over the past six months, she has traversed Syria to deliver aid to government and rebel-held areas alike. 

Coming to Beirut for one week for training was like punishment.  I have more and more reasons to do my work every day.

It’s not just about delivering aid—it is about reducing the human suffering, and we have to arrange with the two sides to facilitate the work. The difficulties we face come from [both] the government and opposition, since there are areas besieged by both sides. But we never say an area is blocked and give up. We always keep trying to reach it. We don’t blame one side or the other. All we know is there are people who are in need and we have to help them.

In Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army has besieged a prison of 4,000 people who are going without medical aid and food. There was an agreement to deliver medical assistance and to transport out the people who had been released. But when they got there shooting started and one of the SARC (Syrian Arab Red Crescent) volunteers was wounded. We can’t know if it was the FSA, but they are the ones holding the place. But even though the mission didn’t work, they will try to go again. We always try again.

SARC volunteers get a lot of harassment from the security forces, and they get arrested and tortured. Some were arrested doing humanitarian missions. If you wear the aid uniform it doesn’t even mean anything—this is a problem.

Risk is normal in such a conflict but being arrested by the government is not logical – and it’s not an accident.  We are never alone. Wherever we go they have informants. If we go to Houla, for example, they know exactly who we aid.

When the government or opposition questions who we are delivering aid to, we give a clear answer: we only distribute to civilians. We don’t give aid to anyone with a gun or an army uniform whether regime or opposition. If someone comes and they’re armed, we tell them to send your wife or come back without your gun. At the same time, all combatants have the right to get help, including who were fighting and got injured in the battle.

Our neutrality is the most important thing to me.

Refusing Aid for Religion

Now we have a new kind of war — a relief war. The government doesn’t allow assistance to enter opposition areas and vice versa. Both sides are fighting using civilians.

In Aleppo and Deir Ezzor there are a lot of problems for the organizations distributing aid. In Deir Ezzor there were intense negotiations between a major organization and the government to get aid to the opposition-held areas, but then Jabhat al-Nusra refused because it came in trucks with a Christian religious symbol. These guys are crazy and some are not even Syrian. They have also refused aid in trucks with crosses in Aleppo.

In Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic group headed by the Sharia (Islamic law) Court refused aid from the Danish Refugee Council because of the cartoon scandal [a Danish newspaper published cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed in 2005]. They are one of the best NGOs. We always get the aid in eventually, but it causes a big problem for the teams and it takes extra negotiations to get the trucks through with their logo. In some cases, organizations cannot move because of their logo.

In Ghouta [an area east of Damascus] there are 1.5 million besieged because opposition is there… just imagine. People are starving. We asked seven times to enter Ghouta and are [still] trying to negotiate with all the security officials. Sometimes you take green light from opposition or government and get through all the checkpoints, and then the last one says no.

On the other hand, the opposition doesn’t allow aid to enter [government-held] Idlib city because they control the areas around it. The last time we tried to deliver, the opposition didn’t let the aid trucks enter Idlib city. They took the aid to rural Aleppo instead. They also make demands we cannot meet. Lewa al-Islam demanded a share of the assistance. Another time, a battalion demanded the body of one of their dead fighters before we enter their area, and the guy’s brother didn’t even want the body. And he’s dead anyway! They kidnapped a UNICEF team to put pressure on government, which affected access to Aleppo city and the relief work there, since the UN teams were not able to go there any more.

Palestinian Camp in the Crossfire

A year before the crisis began, I was working on a UNRWA-funded project to build new houses for residents of the Nayrab Palestinian refugee camp in Aleppo. The idea was to build new houses in Handarat [another Palestinian refugee camp] and redesign the Nayrab camp for houses. They were going to make gardens, a clinic and widen the roads.

This was a five-year project. The first phase was relocating half the people to Handarat and this was finished in 2009. There were 300 houses built and people had moved into their new houses and already decorated.

But now this area has turned into a battlefield. One month ago, the opposition took control of the whole area and 6,500 families were forced to leave — some at gunpoint.. Now the area is a military point. These are poor people with no place else to go. In Aleppo there’s no more room for displaced people in the shelters.

The second phase was improving Nayrab camp, which is strategic because it is close to the Nayrab military airport and the international airport. It could decide the winner.

The Palestinians in Nayrab have been besieged from both sides. The government closed the roads on one side to protect the airport, and the FSA besieged the area from the other side because they wanted the residents to get out so they can attack the airport.

I kept in contact with the people who live there and they told me the FSA wasn’t allowing food to get in for over five months. They confiscated everything people tried to bring, even baby milk. They were about to die from hunger. And the electricity and water supply were destroyed nine months ago.

Recently the government [won the battle for] the road from Nayrab to Aleppo so now the residents have a safe road and move easier. It used to take six hours to go from Nayrab to the city because of the checkpoints from both sides. Before that, the opposition army would arrest people to exchange with other Palestinians that the government detained at the airport, even though the Palestinians were mostly neutral and don’t fight on either side.

Civilians Adapt 

The world just cares about how many die every day and government shelling. We hear that 100 people were killed in a day, but they don’t tell us what happened to their families and others who are displaced, detained or besieged. With my work we don’t blame one side or the other. We just know there are thousands of affected families that need our help.

Personally I will not allow anyone to play with my feelings. The news on television doesn’t help anyone—it just spreads blame. When Aleppo University was attacked, everyone pointed fingers and no one cared about what had actually happened. We lost our feelings. Everything in Syria is worse than it appears.

Aleppo used to be the commercial capital of the country but now all the factories are destroyed or looted. Now we have to ship medicine from Aqaba [a Jordanian port] on the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, and then to Lebanon and finally Syria. I can’t believe we are paying more for shipping than on the drugs themselves.

There is salt in opposition-held areas of Deir Ezzor but we’re importing it from Beirut because they won’t allow it to be sent to Damascus. In Aleppo fuel is expensive because the oil fields are under opposition control, and gas canisters are expensive in opposition areas since the government doesn’t send enough there. It isn’t one country anymore.

Aleppo is divided. Soldiers from the government and opposition are next to each other — literally across the street. They are joking all night but the civilians have to go all the way around to get to the other side of Aleppo.

It is funny how people are adapting. Everyone has two phones, one for both of the national companies, and five batteries to talk. The power comes on every three days for two hours and no matter what time it is you rush to charge your phone and cook. Even if the water comes on at 4am they rush to take a shower, do the laundry and clean the house.

They divide the streets with sheets to protect themselves from the snipers. Even the girls still go out. Sometimes they have to spend days without washing their hair so they keep powder in their purses to keep it from looking greasy. I live in Damascus and we have it best—we have electricity and fuel, but it is like a big prison. Every step you take, you have to show your ID a thousand times. The FSA warned that they will attack security and government buildings, but they are all around us, so where do we go?

We are dying and we don’t care who takes control. I’m sure if you made a survey today and take out the extremists on both sides, then 80 percent [of civilians] would just want the war to stop. They don’t want freedom or Bashar or anything [in particular] — they just want the killing to stop. It’s not important who controls the country if no one is left alive.

The War Becomes Personal 

One of my friends is stuck in the Syrian Army. He hasn’t seen his mom for the past eight months. He has dreams like everyone else and now all his dreams are destroyed. His fiancé left him, and he’s Druze, so the opposition doesn’t think he’s a Muslim and he can’t even defect. Even if he did [go to the FSA], he would still have to fight. My friends didn’t choose their religion. Even now my best friends are a Druze and a Christian.

I’m Muslim Sunni and I have a colleague who is Alawite [Assad’s much-maligned religious sect, which makes up about 12 percent of the Syrian population]. Even if I’m tired I volunteer for missions in Deir Ezzor just so she doesn’t have to go. I don’t want anything to happen to her. Just because my colleague is from Latakia she can get kidnapped — and she’s a humanitarian worker.

I believe we have a mission. People in Aleppo are working all day on relief [projects.] Even those with nothing are volunteering. My sister was abroad and she came back to work in relief. My mom works as a psychologist. Freedom and democracy is not our biggest concern anymore—we just want to live to the next day. We just want to get to the next street.

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