Humanitarian workers with years of experience operating in conflict zones are reporting that the carnage they witnessed during recent missions to Syria for Handicap International was the worst they had ever seen.
“What's going on in Syria right now is disastrous—you can't imagine just how bad it really is,” says 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 and taking place in residential areas. Civilians are just as likely to be affected as fighters. When the conflict ends and we're finally able to venture into the hardest-hit areas, I think we're going to make some truly appalling discoveries. It will take years to help the Syrian people recover.”
“The flow of injured people never stops”
“The injured people we're working with have been destroyed physically and psychologically," says Diana Hiscock, who was deeply distressed by what she saw while working there as a physical therapist. “Almost all of them have been injured in an explosion or an attack that cost the lives of one of their relatives. The type of trauma we are seeing is 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,” says Hiscock. “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 they have 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 mental support too. More and more people are finding themselves in this desperate situation every day.”
Hiscock reports that civilians are forced to travel from town to town to escape the fighting or seek shelter after their homes have been destroyed. Some gather together in camps for displaced people where they receive almost no help. Those who can take refuge abroad. Others are trapped between the battle lines, searching for a place where they'll be safe until they are forced to flee again. “When people flee, they have to leave everything behind, all of their personal belongings, everything that might remind them of their life before the war,” says Hiscock. “They lose their whole identities.”
Humanitarian aid not getting through
For Woehling, what's so usual about this conflict is that humanitarian aid has not been getting through to victims. “On previous humanitarian missions, I saw bouts of heavy fighting which occasionally affected civilians. I have never seen fighting this fierce that affects civilians for so long and blocks humanitarian aid from getting through. Isolated and poorly coordinated initiatives are the only support civilians are receiving right now, particularly in areas controlled by the rebels. Everything has to be done through informal networks or private initiatives to try to fill some of the gaps left by local hospitals and care services, which are completely on their knees. Something has to change and fast."
Handicap International has been aiding people with injuries and disabilities inside Syria since December 2012. Our mobile teams visit health facilities, camps, and communities where displaced people are living to improve their treatment and care. The organization has also opened a functional rehabilitation center in northern Syria, where physical therapists can case-manage people discharged from surrounding hospitals. The work performed by rehabilitation specialists often helps the injured to avoid permanent disabilities.