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Opinion: Aleppo images show why Syrians still need help

Marianne Gasser
March 14, 2019

International donors have pledged aid to Syria as the conflict there enters its ninth year. Marianne Gasser, former head of the Red Cross delegation in Syria, knows how vital immediate help is from personal experience.

A girl holds a teddy bear in the Syrian town of Al Bab
Image: picture-alliance/AA/E. Sansar

The children in the streets were so malnourished that they hardly noticed our arrival.

Skeletal children are a haunting image. But our aid trip to the Syrian city of Madaya in the cold of January 2016 left me with an even grimmer memory: A dark basement filled with hollow-faced children and catatonic elders, all of them cold, ill and hungry. Limp bodies lay on blue blankets on the floor of a makeshift subterranean clinic, hiding from aerial bombardment.

Syria is reeling from its eight-year conflict. Every single family in the country has lost a relative. No family has survived unscathed, whether by displacement, injury, death or disappearance. So many houses, hospitals, schools, and electricity/water facilities have been damaged or destroyed.

Syria needs help now. I would know. During the past eight years, most of them as head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, I saw the country traverse the seemingly thin line between pleasant peace and deadly destruction.

A return to wider war is possible, maybe even likely, without a political breakthrough and a plan to rebuild the broken, both buildings and people. Answers must be given for the likely hundreds of thousands who have gone missing, separated families must be put back together, and those suffering from psychological wounds must be supported before healing can take place.

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Marianne Gasser visits a patient at the Al Tal hospital in Damascus
Marianne Gasser visits a patient at the Al Tal hospital in DamascusImage: ICRC/Ali Yousef

In short, Syria's people must figure out how to co-exist. As aid workers, we can help in the short and medium term; I hope that the international community will make the commitments needed for a peaceful long term.

The trauma of Madaya is seared into my mind. During our visit, a mother of six whispered in my ear: "I just lost my eldest son. He was 17. Please help me to keep the remaining five alive.”

Another woman, smiling, leaned close and said: "You know what you have done, you people from the outside? By talking to us, by remembering us, you brought us back something else: our dignity. Thank you."

Damascus was modern, vibrant and beautiful when I began as ICRC's head of delegation in 2009. No one knew Syria was careening toward misery. In mid-March 2011, violence started in a town called Deraa an hour outside the capital. One year later fighting had spread throughout the country. 

The devastation and numbers of people killed, injured and displaced were heart-breaking. Farmlands became frontlines. Olives became a dietary staple. Millions of people were displaced, half of Syria's population. Millions.

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Marianne Gasser talks with displaced people.
Marianne Gasser at the Mahalej collective shelter in AleppoImage: ICRC/Sama Tarabishi

For children, school became a distant memory. Mathematics, history and science were replaced by lessons of war: run, hide, grieve and survive. So many children under the age of eight have known nothing else.

Years of fighting have left some of the country's vital services extremely fragile, including schools, health facilities, electrical systems, irrigation channels and water services. More than 11.5 million people are in need of assistance, now living in dire conditions.

Even when apartment buildings, houses or shops are left standing, the areas are still often contaminated with explosive remnants, putting families, particularly children, at serious risk. Remnants of war — including those in agricultural fields  must now be safely disposed of.

Aleppo. Does the name remind you of indescribable destruction and suffering? It does for me.

In late 2016 the shelling in Aleppo had been incessant, with mortars launched on residential districts. The battle ripped the heart out of the city and drained it of its soul.

With the temperature hovering at freezing, ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams crossed the frontline into a sea of rubble. We got out of the car to wave the flag of the Red Cross, so everyone knew who we were.

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It was there I saw one of the most moving sights I've ever witnessed: thousands of people  —  mainly women and children —  waiting to be evacuated. Many wore rags and carried old bags. Exhaustion, fear, anxiety, hope were etched into their faces. Destruction loomed.

There were so many children, and hardly any of them had warm clothes. They were silent, no sound, not a smile. Their faces held no expression.

This is the image you get when life is consumed by violence. This is the reason Syria must rebuild its buildings and souls. Madaya, Aleppo, death, destruction  it's a world Syria must not return to.

Marianne Gasser served as the ICRC's head of delegation in Syria from 2009-13 and 2015-19.

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