This is a guest post by the British Red Cross programme manager for the Middle East and north Africa, who recently visited the Syrian Arab Red Crescent headquarters in Syria.
We arrived in Syria from Beirut in the late afternoon and got to Damascus as dusk was falling. On the Lebanese side of the border, we could see many people leaving Syria.
Over the road, at the office processing entrances to Syria, it was another story. The waiting room in the border office was desolate, with a few – mainly male – travellers getting their documentation approved to go back.
The road from the Lebanese border had not changed much since the last time I’d been here – over four years ago now – with rolling red hills leading down to the city of Damascus. However, as we entered the capital, we passed long queues outside two bakeries. Bread is now a commodity that Syrians cannot take for granted.
Silent deserted streets
The evening streets in central Damascus are relatively quiet, but artillery and bombs can be heard in the distance. My thoughts went out to the families hearing this much closer to home. We are told this is another thing that has become part of daily life.
Each time we ventured out of our hotel, the quietness and the emptiness of the streets is palpable, and very sad. This is not the lively and bustling Damascus I had known and appreciated not that long ago. The local people and the economy are both suffering.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has had to move its headquarters from the outskirts of Damascus due to high levels of insecurity. It is now located in the relatively quiet area of Abu Rummaneh. However, Red Crescent staff still have to face driving back to their homes every day. Most live in neighbourhoods deemed ‘unsafe’ in our security briefing, places where shelling and bombs are now commonplace.
Hearing about the dangers that volunteers and staff face, I couldn’t help but ask Marwan Abdullah, Syrian Arab Red Crescent director general, if they would ever consider armoured cars. “Never,” He said. “For us, as a national organisation, it would send out the wrong message.
“The emblem is our protection, and we have to trust that people respect what it stands for. Until now, despite the very few sad instances, it has served us well. Relying on it is the only way we can operate.”
Supplying aid and medical care
We visited the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s Zahera clinic in Damascus. Originally built to provide services to Iraqi refugees, it now acts as an outpatient clinic and is currently receiving more Syrian patients than Iraqis.
Zahera receives around 500 patients a day, with services ranging from cardiology to orthopaedics. There are nine floors, but at present only the bottom three can be used to provide health care. The Red Crescent needs more funds to equip other floors and take in more patients.
We also visited the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s Damascus branch operations room and volunteer offices. Here, we met some of the first aid volunteers and saw the room where all ambulances and first aid units are dispatched from.
Volunteers’ dedication and bravery
Volunteers rely on the operations room to safely navigate them through the streets and negotiate access. We witnessed one such negotiation first hand – a situation where shelling had occurred and first aid volunteers needed to access a disputed area to evacuate the wounded.
The basement of the building also now acts as the makeshift maintenance garage for the Red Crescent’s vehicles and ambulances, as the old garage is in a neighbourhood where it is no longer safe to venture.
After the clinic, we headed to Fayhaa, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s new distribution centre in Damascus. Two large tents are already half full with food parcels, hygiene kits, water and other goods ready to be collected by local Red Crescent branches.
Neutrality despite challenges
During our visit we got a flavour of the day to day challenges that Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff are facing – collecting information from hard-to-contact branches, ensuring operations are adapted to the changing situation, and ensuring the safety of staff and equipment.
Despite these challenges, they work hard to remain neutral and only respond within the remit of their humanitarian work – no easy feat in such a complex and politically charged conflict.
It is clear that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is an important negotiator when things go wrong or if organisations officially working in Syria find themselves in trouble. Through its contacts, the Red Crescent – often in close collaboration with the ICRC – is frequently able to negotiate aid being released and access being granted.
Staff and volunteers are all personally affected by the situation, and yet they continue to come to work, recruit and train more volunteers, and plan for the needs of the Syrian population in coming months. I am awed by their dedication and bravery.
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