Restoring a path to humanity in Syria

This photo taken in Syria last year shows aid supplies, including hygiene kits, baby diapers, children’s clothes and blankets, on their way to 12,000 Palestinian and Syrian families in the capital Damascus. Photo: Ibrahim Malla/IFRC

On Monday the world stood in shock as an aid convoy was bombed in Syria. At least 21 people were killed trying to deliver life-saving supplies to some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians surviving in, what can only be described as, hell on earth.

The convoy was one of many that we were hoping would be let through during the ceasefire. Tragically, the ceasefire didn’t last long enough for that to happen. The air raid destroyed 18 United Nations and Red Cross Red Crescent trucks and countless lives. The images of burnt trucks and food are a scar on our humanity.

One of those killed in the bombing was Omar Barakat, Director of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent branch in Orem al-Kubra near Aleppo.

Omar was directly involved in securing permits for the aid convoy that would end his life. His nine children have lost their father forever.

Last week’s ceasefire was such an important step towards peace. It gave hope to so many Syrians who have been living in fear for five and a half years. Fear that they might be next. Fear that they may not survive the coming winter. No one should have to live with such fear.

Reinstating the ceasefire must be a priority for all.

This photo taken earlier this year shows a convoy of vehicles from Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the International Committee of Red Cross and UN agencies. They are delivering much needed aid to people in the beseiged Syrian towns of Fouaa and Kafriya. Photo: Abdullaziz Al-Droubi / Syrian Arab Red Crescent

The Syrian tragedy shames us all. The collective failure of the international community should haunt every member of the Security Council,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon this week. We can and must do much better for the people of Syria.

All parties to this conflict must respect the laws of war, which means protecting civilians and humanitarian workers. Every day brings more tears and loss.

Even without the ceasefire humanity can be restored with some determined steps.

First and foremost we need safe and unhindered access to deliver aid to all areas. Since the start of the conflict, we have been calling on all those fighting to allow free and unharmed passage of essential humanitarian aid, in accordance with international humanitarian law.

We must remember that day in, day out, Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers play a critical role negotiating access across the frontlines, to get aid where it’s needed.

Over the past three years the call for help to allow safe passage of aid to besieged areas has reached a deafening crescendo. We’ve been echoing those cries from Aleppo and Damascus to all parties involved in this conflict.
Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and staff unload relief supplies in Al Waer, in the city of Homs where thousands of families needed lifesaving assistance. This photo was taken last year. Photo: Abdulaziz Al-droubi / Syrian Arab Red Crescent

Secondly, we must not allow attacks on those delivering aid. It is a clear violation of international humanitarian law. It must not be allowed in Syria or anywhere. We must respect these laws of war to maintain any semblance of humanity.

Thirdly, we must protect humanitarian aid workers, including doctors and nurses so they can do their work unharmed.

On Wednesday, medical workers were bombed. Nurses and ambulance drivers have been killed attending to the wounded.

All those providing life-saving health care in hospitals and bullet-ridden makeshift clinics need to be allowed to do their work without fear of being bombed. More than 730 medical workers have been killed since the start of the Syrian conflict in 360 attacks on medical facilities according to the United Nations; more than one attack a week for five years. This must stop.

Doctors must be allowed to operate. Nurses must be allowed to care. Engineers must be allowed to repair damaged water infrastructure. Aid workers must be allowed to deliver food and other essential supplies.

They are not part of the fight and must be protected through respect of international humanitarian law.

A volunteer carries a Syrian Arab Red Crescent flag while he and his colleagues distribute food parcels in Mouadamiya, Syria. This photo was taken in 2014. Photo: Ibrahim Malla/IFRC

Let’s make no mistake. It is a complex crisis. This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Eighteen million Syrians need regular help to live. A country that had nearly the same population as Australia has lost five million people who have left to seek a safer life. Imagine the whole population of Sydney or Melbourne on the move.

All governments and parties involved in the Syria crisis must not only respect but uphold the laws of war. These laws were first developed over 150 years ago but it took the two devastating world wars before governments of the globe recognised how critical these laws are for humanity.

It’s simple. The red cross and the red crescent are symbols which mean ‘don’t shoot’.

Every day, thousands of ordinary Syrian mums and dads, uncles and aunties, sisters and brothers get out of bed and pull on red and white Syrian Arab Red Crescent outfits to volunteer and help their communities survive through this brutal and destructive war. We honour you and mourn your loss.

It is fitting to end on the words of one of Omar Barakat’s colleagues “They want to kill humanity, but humanity will not die”.

Find out more about Red Cross’ Syria Crisis Appeal and donate now to help us provide relief.

By Judy Slatyer, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Red Cross

This photo was taken in January this year and shows teams of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers on their way to the besieged towns of Madaya, Kafriya and Fouaa. Photo: Zaid Rabaa / Syrian Arab Red Crescent