Devastation in Homs

Syria today is a source of both hope and frustration.

Over the weekend, one hundred trucks carrying food and medical supplies reached the besieged town of Al Rastan for the first time since 2012.

Yet still people are forced to flee their homes. One day earlier, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) evacuated more than 500 people from Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya.

There’s a perception among some in the outside world that the situation in Syria is getting better now. It’s not.

Even in areas that have experienced a respite from the constant thud of mortars, the eerie silence that remains reveals another problem. How will people ever come back and pick up the pieces?

Travelling around some parts of the Old City of Homs last month, I saw streets that were decimated and empty.

Areas that had been bustling markets and residential streets were utterly devoid of people.

I’ve worked in many other disaster zones, such as Haiti or Gaza, where there may be widespread devastation but you could still hear the sound of people, living, working, rebuilding.

Parts of the old city feel like a ghost town or a film set after everyone has packed up and left.

You can’t believe that anyone could ever have lived there when you see the scale of the damage.

Devastation in Homs

Signs of hope

But even in most decimated places there are determined Syrians working to rebuild their lives.

In among the rubble I found a former resident, a baker, who had set up a business amid the devastation.

The Red Cross had provided a basic kitchen oven, utensils, and the resources that he needed to get his bakery working again.

I was surprised. I asked him if he had many customers because it seemed like there was suddenly a bakery in the middle of a bombed-out city.

He said yes. Despite the fact that only around a thousand people had returned to that area, people wanted some semblance of normality, to buy their daily bread.

Baker in Homs

Syrians, where they can, are determinedly repairing sewers, water pumping stations, electrical supplies.

In Aleppo, solar panels have been installed by SARC to power some local water supplies.

A true ceasefire and proper support would allow more of this work to continue.

Heroic volunteers

Another source of hope and inspiration is the extraordinarily heroic group of volunteers working with SARC.

In the Homs branch I visited, the communal space where volunteers relax before they go on call is named after the first volunteer who lost his life.

Homs has been the branch that has lost the most volunteers: some 23 of the 53 SARC casualties nationwide.

Many volunteers are in their twenties and are utilising technology to help their communities.

One volunteer I met created an app to monitor aid deliveries, tracking from the point a family registers for help, through to how the aid reaches them and from what source. He had a degree in software design.

Ultimately, none of these families want to be dependent on aid in the first place – every Syrian wants to use their own particular skills to rebuild their country.

Red Crescent vehicle in Homs

Working in partnership

The British Red Cross has actually been a partner of SARC for many years before the war.

We used to do disaster management training on the back of Syria hosting Iraqi refugees.

Little did we know in the years of supporting that programme would there ever be a situation like this.

When the war started, it meant that there was already a core group of people in place to manage relief operations and mobilise volunteers.

Hopefully the talks continue to move Syria towards an end to this conflict.

But we have ask – what next? And – wherever it is possible – we must support those who are rebuilding their communities now.

Devastation in Homs

Words by David Peppiatt, British Red Cross head of international, who has recently returned from Syria.