"We've never seen civilians suffer so much violence before"

Experienced humanitarian workers, Guillaume Woehling and Diana Hiscock have worked in a number of conflict zones over the last ten years.The horrific violence they witnessed during their mission to Syria for Handicap International was the worst they had ever seen. After returning from their mission in mid-February, they talked to us about their experiences.

Horrific violence

“What’s going on in Syria right now is disastrous. There’s a lot we still don’t know, so you can’t imagine just how bad it really is,” explains Guillaume Woehling, who recently returned to France after spending several months as Handicap International’s head of mission in Syria. “The day-to-day fighting is horrifically violent, in residential areas, and civilians are just as likely to be affected as fighters. When the conflict ends and the smoke from the shelling has cleared we’re going to make some truly appalling discoveries. It’s going to take years to help people get back on their feet.”

“The flow of injured people never stops”

Diana Hiscock is a physiotherapist and like all of the humanitarian workers she met in the field, she was deeply distressed by what she saw. “The injured people we’re working with have been destroyed physically but also psychologically. Almost all of them have been injured in an explosion or an attack that cost the lives of one of their relatives. These physical and psychological traumas are almost always irreversible.”

“I will never forget one four-year old girl, now a paraplegic, who was in a building when it was hit by a bomb. When I performed rehabilitation sessions with her and her mother, I noticed that they would start to panic uncontrollably every time we heard an explosion. And the explosions never stop. The father of the family was arrested and his wife has not heard from him since. They don’t know if they will ever see him alive again. Just treating this little girl will demand a huge amount of work. She needs help living with her paralysis; her mother, who looks after her alone and under the constant threat of bombing, needs support too... And more and more people are finding themselves in this situation every day.”

“Forced to flee the fighting, families have to leave everything behind”

Civilians travel from town to town to flee the fighting or to seek shelter after their own homes have been destroyed. Some take refuge abroad. Others are trapped between the front lines, searching for a place where they’ll be safe... until they are forced to flee again. “Civilians wonder from village to village,” explains Diana Hiscock. “They gather together in camps for displaced people where they receive almost no help at all. When they hit the road, they have to leave everything behind, all of their personal belongings, everything that might remind them of their life before the war – that makes them who they are. It’s terrifying.”

Humanitarian aid not getting through

For Guillaume Woehling, what’s so usual about this particularly devastating conflict, which has been raging for almost two years, is the fact that humanitarian aid has not been getting through to victims. “On previous humanitarian missions, I saw bouts of heavy fighting which occasionally affected civilians. But I have never seen fighting this fierce affect civilians for so long, and without any kind of humanitarian aid getting through. Isolated initiatives are the only support civilians are receiving right now, particularly in areas controlled by the rebels. Something has to change and fast if we are to avoid Syria becoming a huge humanitarian fiasco.”

Handicap International has been aiding injured and disabled people inside Syria since the end of December.Our mobile teams visit health facilities, camps and communities where displaced people are currently living to improve their treatment and care. The organisation has also opened a functional rehabilitation centre to the north of the town of Idlib (in northern Syria) where physiotherapists can case-manage people discharged from surrounding hospitals. The work performed by rehabilitation specialists often helps avoid the development of disabilities and increases the self-reliance of some of the most vulnerable members of the population.