Stolen aid, freak floods, dying cancer patients — one month in Syria

Flash floods near Idlib, north west Syria

Before February’s earthquake hit northwest Syria, many of the region’s ill were able to travel to neighbouring Turkey to receive free medical treatment.

The country was already in disarray after more than a decade of civil war, with a lack of formal authority. It is controlled by rebels opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime, who have little in the way of money to help the communities they now find themselves governing.

When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, things changed. Border crossings between Syria and Turkey. Those who had been receiving treatment for serious illnesses like cancer could no longer travel to receive the medicines that were keeping them alive.

Left in limbo

Some emergency cases were allowed into the country, but for the vast majority, all hope was lost. “Just imagine that: thousands of these people who had been going to Turkey for treatment for years are kicked out and left to suffer,” Abdulkhafi Alhamdo, an activist based in Idlib, northwest Syria, told

Cancer cases in northwest Syria are disproportionately high. It is estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people in the region will develop cancer each year. Some claim that this is due to exposure to chemical weapons.

Other studies point towards forcibly displaced peoples in camps being exposed to high rates of carcinogens. Regardless of the cause, cancer in the region is soon becoming a health crisis spiralling out of control.

According to the Bab al-Hawa crossing — the main crossing between northwest Syria and Turkey — some 1,200 Syrian patients travelled into Turkey to receive treatment in the last year. Now that the border is closed, that number has dropped considerably.

Turkish officials cite the earthquake as having put the brakes on the crossings. Many hospitals in the region where Syrians were being treated in Antakya, for example, were destroyed. The EU and several of its member states have since pledged help and support for the rebuilding of critical infrastructure like hospitals, with Brussels on March 21 earmarking €1billion (£880million) to send to Ankara for similar projects. No such donation has been made to Syria, largely down to the delicate political environment and ongoing conflict.

Mr Alhamdo said it has all left Syrians at the mercy of Turkey and its border guards. He explained that conditions have been divided into “hot and cold cases”. Hot cases are those most at risk of immediate health complications; cold cases are those who are suffering but coping.

He said: “It is like they are deciding whether you stay in Syria and die, or get into Turkey and live. Unfortunately, this is how the situation is.” The Turkish Interior Ministry was approached for comment but did not respond.

More controversially, he claimed that those Syrians attempting to enter Turkey were often at the mercy of the mood of the border guards: “The Turkish who work on the borders, some of them are not happy with Syria and the Syrian people. They make problems for them to get into Turkey, So they are at the mercy of their mood.

“When they say yes, we go. When they say no, we die. That’s not appropriate, and that’s not human.”

JUST IN: Girl tortured ‘for hours’ after being lured to fake party by teenagers

In the village where Mr Alhamdo lives near Idlib, the region’s capital, he said there were two hospitals: “One of them is closed, the other is open. One is closed because there is no funding.

“No one is helping this hospital with any money, with any supplies, with any doctors, with any salaries for the people who are working there, without any resources.”

The one that is open is overstretched and has few supplies to treat people. Many hospitals in the area are asking patients to procure their own medicines and drugs, and bring them to appointments so doctors can administer them, according to Al Jazeera.

“Doctors and nurses are not sleeping,” Mr Alhamdo said. “They catch a break between the time one patient leaves and another enters. They tell me they are tired and don’t know how much longer they can last.”

Stolen aid

Various aid relief is and has been entering Syria intended for the northwest region for years. After the earthquake struck in February, President Bashar al-Assad, who controls all areas outside the northwest, struck a resolution agreement with the United Nations (UN) to allow aid into the northwest without his forces’ obstruction.

Many are, however, sceptical that this will happen. Years of documentation show that Assad has systematically diverted funds intended for millions of suffering people, much of it either ending up in state coffers or pumped back into the territories he controls.

When aid in the form of material goods poured into Syria after the earthquake, reports emerged within days of the government diverting or manipulating it.

Josie Naughton, CEO and co-founder of the humanitarian aid charity Choose Love, was recently in northwest Syria and confirmed this. She told “It was clear all the international funding and support that is talked about is simply not reaching the people that need it.”

She said she had been told by partners of Choose Love working in regime-held areas that some of that aid was currently being “sold on the streets of Damascus [Syria’s capital]”.

Her claims were backed up by various videos posted to social media. In one, Syrian activist Dema Aboesmaeel can be seen inspecting various goods on sale at a Damascus market, where labels on the goods show the products to have arrived from abroad via aid shipments.

Another post, analysed by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, hears an employee of the Kurdish Red Crescent describe how Syrian officials “demanded her team surrender half the aid it sought to bring into a part of Aleppo under control of the Bashar al-Assad regime.” Both videos circulated via the hashtag, #Assad_Loots_Aid.

“It is true,” said Mr Alhmado. “The support which is meant for the people who are struggling, of course, isn’t going to be used for those people affected. Assad will now use this tragedy to get his own interests across, and he will get a chance to beautify his image in front of the international community.”

Conversations he has had with aid workers shine an unfavourable light on the Assad regime: “I remember speaking to German and Jordanian aid workers who told me about what they saw and experienced when trying to give humanitarian aid in Syria,” Mr Alhamdo said.

“The authorities asked them to hand over the aid and they would give it out to the people. This means, of course, that they will take this aid for themselves.”

Billions of pounds in humanitarian assistance have poured into Syria in the last 12 years of the war. However, as Reinoud Leenders and Kholoud Mansour, writing in Political Science Quarterly 2018 noted, this money has likely done more harm than good by subsidising Assad’s war crimes.

The UN, who helps channel this aid into Syria, is more than aware of the siphoning of aid. In 2013 — just three years after the civil war started — the former head of the UN’s humanitarian coordination office acknowledged that “in government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated.” There is no sign that the UN has addressed this problem.

Amna al-Kaid, a humanitarian worker in northwest Syria, hinted that the UN’s most recent resolution will simply sway in Assad’s favour, telling “The aid going through Assad first was a condition for agreeing to renew the security council resolution, so we are trying very hard to rely on ourselves.

“But the possibilities are very few here. Some humanitarian aid enters from regime areas to northwest Syria, but is under international supervision. Until now, despite all the humanitarian aid entering the Idlib region, more than a million people have not received food aid.”

Even the aid that does filter through to those in need is few and far between, as Ms al-Kaid explained: “It just isn’t enough for everyone. There are about five million people in northwestern Syria, the aid is enough for about four million, and there are a million people who still need support.”

Man runs away from flash floods near Idlib, north west Syria

Freak floods

Those four million people rely on the little humanitarian aid available to meet their most basic needs: food, medicine, and other vital supplies, all funnelled through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, Syria’s last humanitarian aid corridor.

But many of these people were hit yet again, just weeks after the initial earthquake, by freak floods in late February and more recently this week.

Footage sent and reviewed by shows the start of the flash floods on March 19 in a small town near the city of Idlib.

In one video, a man can be seen running down the street as a wave of water snaps at his heels. These, Ms al-Kaid said, were the scenes that played out right across northwest Syria.

To make matters worse, many of those who were hit by the floods were living in temporary shelters or tents outside their homes, still recovering from the damage the earthquake inflicted.

When it rains, it pours. Since the earthquake and the floods, the region has experienced an uptick in cases of cholera.

While cholera is a mild illness that can usually be treated at home, many in northwest Syria may die as a result of the infection, due to a lack of equipment and medicines. It has a viciously high fatality rate in such instances: if left untreated, 25-50 percent of severe cases can be fatal.

According to Mr Alhamdo, more than 23 people have already died from it since the earthquake and floods, with a further 600 cases recorded among the population. “All of these things are increasing and becoming worse,” he said.

Ms Naughton said the floods were the “single worst thing that could have happened at this moment,” and that she was “hearing from partners that they urgently need funding to stop the spread, protect human life and prevent a catastrophic secondary crisis.”

Source: Read Full Article