The people of Syria and Lebanon show great readiness to help others, says Christian Reuter, secretary-general of the German Red Cross. He recently spoke with DW's Kersten Knipp.
DW: Mr Reuter, in recent days you've been traveling through Syria, including to the city of Homs. What is your impression of the city?
Christian Reuter: The situation in Homs is different from one district to another. Of course there's the Homs that's been heavily destroyed: that's especially true of the old town, where the armed resistance was based. The destruction there is of a similar proportion to that of Germany after World War II.
But there are also large parts that have not been damaged. People there live almost as they do in normal peacetime. Syria has been caught up in an intense, hard war for almost six years. Of course, that's reflected everywhere, so the overall situation is very difficult.
How are people there coping?
They now have shortages of a great many things. It begins with the fact that people often don't even have water, or are cut off from electricity. They lack toiletries, wheelchairs for the elderly and disabled. The food supply is often cut off, too. And in addition there are the internally displaced. It's still the case that the majority of refugees are on the move within Syria itself. They also lack a roof over their heads.
Are the internally displaced supported by their countrymen?
There's a sense of solidarity. People try to help each other. But of course they can't provide help on the scale we do, in conjunction with our sister organization, the Syrian-Arab Red Crescent. We bring in all the things they're short of: medical assistance, food, toiletries, baby milk – all the things you can't find in Syria anymore. We put them at the disposal of all Syrians.
There is a denominational aspect that has been artificially imposed upon the war. Is that affecting the relationship between Sunnis and Shias?
Denominational fires have indeed been lit. After six years of war, coexistence between Shias and Sunnis has of course become much more difficult, and also more hostile in some areas. That doesn't make the situation any easier.
Are the German Red Cross and its partner organizations sufficiently prepared to provide adequate support to people in a relatively big country like Syria?
We have 190 sister organizations. In Syria, the Syrian-Arab Red Crescent is present all across the country, and of course we work together on the basis of these structures. We are thus in a position of being able to work almost everywhere in Syria.
In which areas is the work going well, and where do you see opportunities for improvement?
I'm happy with the support from the German government. We've received a good 100 million euros in the context of aid for refugees and for Syria. We're very grateful for that. We use the money in a targeted way, and it gets to where it needs to go.
Nonetheless, in a country at war it's difficult to provide help at all times, at the right time, and in a timely manner. In areas dominated by so-called "Islamic State" (IS), of course, that's difficult or even impossible. It's also difficult to provide help in areas where there is fierce fighting.
You're currently in Beirut. There are a great many Syrian refugees living there, too. What's their situation like?
The Lebanese have shown a tremendous readiness to help and to take people in. Lebanon has around four million inhabitants, and for decades it has hosted half a million Palestinian refugees. Added to that, one and a half million Syrian refugees have now arrived. So on the one hand there is a great readiness to help.
On the other hand, it is of course clear that with numbers like these – refugees do, after all, constitute a quarter of the Lebanese population – there are a great many shortages, in infrastructure, medical care or education. The refugees live in tent cities, half-finished buildings, or industrial buildings. Naturally, those are very difficult conditions from a humanitarian point of view.
What impression will you personally take home from this trip?
We in Europe live very comfortably. We are barely aware of the full extent of the refugees' distress and misery. In this regard, it's good for us to look beyond our own limits and our own states of mind. We would do well to provide the support needed by people in other parts of the world. This is what I advocate.
Christian Reuter is the secretary-general of the German Red Cross.
The interview was conducted by DW's Kersten Knipp.