We'll continue working as long as we're needed

03-02-2012 Interview

Just back from a visit to Syria, Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, head of ICRC operations in the Middle East, gives her assessment of the situation from a humanitarian viewpoint in that violence-racked country and provides a glimpse of the work being done by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to help the people affected.

How do you view current developments from a humanitarian perspective?
I have been closely following the situation in Syria since the start of the civil unrest there and have visited the country several times, including areas affected by the violence. I was in Homs for the second time about two weeks ago. It is definitely not the same place I saw a few months back. The city bears the scars of heavy fighting and there's a palpable sense of fear. Many residents are in dire need of help. Since we rely on first-hand sources for our assessment, we always try to talk to as many people as possible, including doctors, nurses, our colleagues from the Syrian Red Crescent, the authorities and average citizens on the street. One of the people I spoke to told me "We don't want food – we want to be protected from what's happening here!"

Thousands have been injured or killed in the past 11 months, including members of the army and security forces. The recent bombings in Damascus have brought home to people there the fact that violence can affect them directly. The situation is constantly changing and people are clinging to the hope that the troubles will end and they will be able to resume normal life. Violence is not yet affecting the entire country. In the areas affected, however, the need for humanitarian action is growing.

The economic situation remains a source of concern since it has a direct bearing on a huge number of people. Residents of many areas are struggling with harsh economic and psychological conditions. As I say, there are grounds for very real humanitarian concern.

Have your priorities changed?
If the current violence shows anything, it's that our priorities were well founded all along. Our principal concern is still the failure to respect the health-care services and the personnel providing them, particularly the Syrian Red Crescent.

We remain shocked at the death of Dr Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro, who was secretary-general of the Red Crescent and headed its Idlib branch. He was killed on 25 January in the kind of incident that suggests a grave failure to understand the meaning of the red crescent emblem: the fact that the sole purpose of the vehicles, facilities and volunteers displaying it is to save the lives of the injured and sick. Their work must be respected and their access to those in need must be unhindered. And the emblem must under no circumstances be misused. Otherwise the Red Crescent can't carry out its humanitarian duties. How can we expect people to do an inherently stressful and dangerous job if they aren't convinced that the various parties support them and respect their emblem?

Another priority for the ICRC is to visit all those detained in Syria and ensure that people learn where their son, brother, father or husband is. We don't know how many people are being held. At this stage we aren't carrying out any visits since we're still discussing our working procedures with the Syrian authorities. Visits are pointless unless they afford us an accurate view of the detainees' situation. Clearly, this will happen only if we are allowed to work in accordance with our standard procedures, the same ones that apply in over 80 countries around the world where we visit detention facilities.

Does the violence affect your ability to work in Syria?
There's no doubt that the repeated incidents involving Red Crescent volunteers have prompted us to carefully consider the security aspects of our own operations. These include the timing and frequency of ICRC visits to the affected areas, at a time when people urgently need help. We have to strike a balance between the very real needs and the often excessive risk to the lives of people doing the humanitarian work. We will just have to do our best.