THE city of Idlib, in Syria, is “on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare, unlike anything we have seen this century”, UNICEF said this week.
Warnings that the conflict in Syria must not end in a bloodbath (News, 17 August 2018) appear to have gone unheeded. Heavy bombardment of the region, the one province not yet under government control, has forced 330,000 people to flee in the past six weeks.
World Vision reported this week that pregnant women were among one in every three displaced families, and that half of families included a breastfeeding woman and a young child.
“Our worst fears are materialising,” the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, said last week. “Yet again, innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law: to protect all civilians.”
At least 230 civilians, including 69 women and 81 children, have been killed in the conflict during the past six weeks.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled to the north of Idlib are living in overcrowded, informal camps, shelters, and open fields, without proper health care, or clean water or shelter. World Vision reports that it has received “numerous accounts” of women having to give birth outside, under the trees, and newborns are spending their first days without protection from the elements. Temperatures have reached 40ºC in recent weeks.
“Children in Idlib are experiencing unimaginable terror — with the threat of death a reality every single day,” the Syria advocacy director at World Vision, Caroline Anning, said this week. “We call for an urgent ceasefire, and for all parties to the conflict to protect civilians, particularly children who remain trapped in frontline areas.”
World Vision is working through Syrian partners to deliver aid. They were doing “incredibly brave work in very dangerous conditions”, Ms Anning said on Tuesday. At one medical facility supported by World Vision, the number of patients have increased by 70 per cent in the past month, and children are sleeping on the floor. Aid agencies risk being overwhelmed, as facilities are destroyed and stocks with them.
“We are not seeing the attention you might expect,” Ms Anning said. “You think, when you see something like Aleppo, it couldn’t get any worse, and then it does: brutal attacks on civilian areas, and a complete failure by all sides to protect children and civilians.”
Last week, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, noted the “significant presence” of the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, inside the de-escalation area in Idlib, as a significant drawback: “Undoubtedly, there is no easy solution for Idlib. But the only way to find one is for hostilities to stop, and for key stakeholders to engage in a co-operative approach towards countering terrorism — an approach that safeguards the protection of civilians.”
Ms Anning said: “If, in order to completely liberate an area, you have to completely destroy it, that is not a sustainable solution. The only way to end this conflict is to have a negotiated peace deal. That is the only way to spare further bloodshed and more children being killed and injured.”
Whole parts of Syria, once a middle-income country, had been “reduced to rubble”, she said. Children would need “long-term support to help them recover, and prevent this kind of conflict from recurring again”.
Last week, the UN released a video featuring NGO leaders outlining the crisis in Syria and proclaiming that “the world is watching”.
“Despite our repeated warnings about the impact of a military campaign in the north-west of Syria, Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare, unlike anything we have seen this century,” the head of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said.
“Even though what’s important is reaching these people and protecting them, the feedback we have had is that solidarity is also really meaningful,” Ms Anning said. “That they know they are not forgotten: that is something the public can do, as well as political leaders.”