This is a guest blog by British Red Cross chief executive Sir Nicholas Young, who recently visited Damascus, Syria.
Today, Syria is a war zone. Even in Damascus, the skyline is punctuated by plumes of smoke from bombed buildings. The streets are quiet and the lights are out from early evening. The call to prayer is interrupted by the rolling boom of mortar and artillery attacks, and the shriek of war planes overhead.
Food is in short supply, and even bread is hard to find outside Damascus. The country can no longer produce its own medicines, as the pharmaceutical factories around Aleppo have been destroyed or damaged by fighting. Over a third of the country’s hospitals have closed down. Typhoid and hepatitis are spreading.
The UN estimates that over 4 million people in Syria need help.
Fear for loved ones
In the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s ambulance control centre in Damascus, volunteers direct crews to dozens of fires, bomb scenes and car crashes daily. One controller tells me how fearful he was sending his wife – also a volunteer – out on these dangerous missions. He has asked to no longer be told which vehicle his wife is in.
Nadia* – who runs the control centre – was a librarian. Now the library is closed, so she is living on her savings while she oversees her team. “We are trying to do our best,” Nadia says, with a tired smile. “With everything we have.”
Watch a video of Sir Nicholas Young’s trip to Damascus below:
Shot at and detained
Fighting is taking place across the country. Key roads are fought over, won and lost daily. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent must negotiate safe passage with armed groups and risk their lives to get aid past gunmen, kidnappers, hostage-takers and robbers. Khaled, a volunteer, has been shot at several times. A passenger died in his arms.
“Come with me, leave your vehicle” are the words everyone dreads. Many times Red Crescent volunteers have been stopped and held for questioning. Some have even been arrested and imprisoned.
Despite these dangers, Red Crescent volunteers and staff continue doing remarkable work. Every day, in virtually every part of the country, they are leading convoys along roads punctuated by checkpoints and fought over by conflicting forces. They are risking their lives to ensure that help reaches vulnerable people on all sides of the conflict.
Drained and subdued
We talk to a young doctor in a Syrian Arab Red Crescent clinic. He seems drained and subdued. “My wife has already left,” he says. “Now I must decide whether I should follow her. Many, many doctors have already gone.
“A week ago, I came home to find that a sniper had fired a bullet through my window. It destroyed a suit I had left hanging on my wardrobe. We are getting over 1,000 patients each week now. We are running out of medicine. I wake up in the night crying uncontrollably. I feel I should go, but who will take my place?”
As we leave the clinic, a woman comes down the steps towards us. “He is wonderful, that doctor,” she says. “He is a saviour. They are all wonderful here.”
Afraid to stay, afraid to go
I thought I would be relieved to leave Damascus. The bombs, the sirens, the drawn faces, the closed shops and the empty restaurants are a constant nagging worry. But instead I feel sad, depressed – guilty even.
I want to stay; everyone in our party does. Khamel*, a Syrian travelling with us, talks about his mother. He had visited her one evening, passing through several checkpoints in the dark, empty suburban streets. She was afraid – afraid to stay, afraid to go, afraid she might never return.
As we drive towards the border, Khamel phones her. “I will go,” she tells him.
We look back towards the city. Khamel – a sunny, friendly man with a European wife and a new life ahead of him – sits quietly, tugged back towards the country of his heart as we speed away.
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*Names changed to protect identities.