Two years into conflict, Syrian Arab Republic is on the verge of losing a generation to violence
By Priyanka Pruthi
NEW YORK, United States of America, 12 March 2013 – For the past two years, the world has seen crisis explode in the Syrian Arab Republic. Twenty-four months of chaos and conflict have cost the country thousands of lives, many of them children.
The wait for a political solution seems never-ending. It’s a wait that has torn a country apart and placed it on the verge of losing a generation to violence.
A lost generation?
“Millions of children inside Syria and across the region are witnessing their past and their futures disappear amidst the rubble and destruction of this prolonged conflict,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “And, as they lose their childhoods . . . as their right to be children is denied . . . their views of their neighbours are coloured in ways that can create future generations of self-perpetuating violence. With all that implies for the region as a whole.”
With conflict spiraling out of control, basic infrastructure and public services are being systematically destroyed. Health centres have been damaged, clean water is scarce, and the education system is near complete collapse. UNICEF estimates that one in every five schools has either been destroyed or is being used by displaced people seeking shelter. Many children have been out of school for nearly two years.
The war has affected the entire country and left many Syrians with no choice but to flee. Every day, more and more families are crossing borders to escape the accelerating violence. A million people have already fled their homes for neighbouring countries. Imagine the residents of New Orleans and Washington on the run, says UNHCR. It’s as if the entire population of Ottawa, Canada, were seeking shelter in another country, they say.
And neighbouring countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are feeling the strain of the influx.
Director of UNICEF’s Emergency Programmes Ted Chaiban traveled inside the Syrian Arab Republic last month. He finds it hard to describe the gut-wrenching scenes and heart-breaking conversations he had with families. “I met children who were hearing the sounds of bombs and the sounds of shelling less than a kilometre away from their homes,” he says. “They were living in displaced shelters – 10 to 12 in a room with their families, with really very minimal possessions – maybe just the clothes on their backs and some plastic sheeting on the windows.
“These are children who witnessed violence against their families, and who have been subject to violence themselves.”
Children are the paying the heaviest price for the conflict. Of the four million people affected inside the country, almost half are children. These children face tremendous dangers every day. They are being targeted, killed, maimed, abused, tortured – and orphaned.
During his visit to the country, Mr. Chaiban was struck by the resilience of the Syrian people. “The first response to the crisis has been Syrian families and Syrian communities,” he says. “The courage of those families, the courage of those neighbourhood associations that have arisen to respond to the conflict really struck me. There are young people – 20- to 22-year-olds, really coming together and saying: we are going to take care of ourselves and our people.”
Despite the dangerous circumstances and grim situation, aid workers, too, have risked their lives to reach those in need. A new report released by UNICEF highlights efforts made to assist Syrian children inside and outside the country in such areas as health, water and sanitation, nutrition and education.
Within the Syrian Arab Republic, UNICEF and its partners have vaccinated 1.3 million children against measles, four million people have been provided with safe water, and over 421,700 children and women have access to basic health services.
But the lack of access inside the Syrian Arab Republic and a lack of funding are the biggest hurdles facing the humanitarian community. “Syria is a very difficult operating environment,” explains Mr. Chaiban. “We have very significant security constraints, and we have had difficulties also negotiating access. We're really trying our best – across lines, wherever children and women – people in need are, but the resource base has been difficult to mobilize for this crisis.”
UNICEF has only received 22 per cent of the US$68.4 million required –a shortfall that will affect the organization’s ability to effect large-scale vaccination campaigns, access to safe water and scale-up of psychosocial support for children.
“UNICEF, like all our partners in the UN and beyond, requires urgent funding – or these life-saving services will be placed in jeopardy,” appeals Mr. Lake. “We can only meet the growing needs if adequate resources are made available.”
“Don’t forget the Syrian child”
The international community has been working for two years to rescue Syrian children from irreparably damaged futures. And, while the ultimate solution to the crisis is certainly a political one, there is a lot the world can do the make the wait for an end to the war a less painful one for millions who are suffering and helpless.
“Don't forget the Syrian child – don't forget that this is child who, until 22 months ago, went to school, was playing to their friends, was living in their own homes…this is now a child who, for no fault of their own, is displaced, has seen conflict, has seen violence – and needs your support,” says Mr. Chaiban.