Fr Cedric Prakash, a senior human rights activist from Gujarat is now in Beirut, Lebanon, from where he will be contributing a regular column for SabrangIndia
On March 15, 2011 inspired by the Arab Spring unprecedented protests erupted in several parts of Syria, demanding immediate reform after forty years of iron-fisted rule by the family of President Bashar Assad’s family.
Today, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the commencement of this civil war Syria lies in ruins. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “this war has left more than 270,000 people dead; of these 80,000 are civilians including 13,500 children.”
Unofficially however, the death toll is far more- with an unknown number killed in detention at the hands of the government, rebels or militants. An estimated one million people have also been wounded; an unbelievable number suffer from trauma and other mental –health illness which any conflict of such an intense nature can generate.
Above all, this civil war has spawned the greatest mass migration after World War II. A United Nations(UN) report in January this year said that out of a pre-conflict population of 23 million, 13.5 million Syrians have been forced out of their homes; and an additional 480,000 are still living under siege. Some 4.7 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and significant numbers to Egypt, Iraq.
Though the vast majority have remained in the region, hundreds of thousands have tried to make the perilous journey to Europe, not all reach the European shores alive. Most of the refugees and the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) face acute problems- which include, living in abominable conditions in make-shift housing, poverty, lack of employment and very little access to quality healthcare and education. Besides, several local communities show reluctance to easily accept the refugees/IDPs- and impose severe restrictions on their integration
So is there anything to “celebrate?” as the fifth anniversary approaches? It’s a question I have been asking several Syrians in Homs and earlier in Damascus. One does not even have to wait for answer- the pain in their eyes, the suffering hewn in their faces, tell it all.
‘Absolutely nothing’, is the common refrain. “No, there is nothing left for us- we are afraid to look into tomorrow;” “All we want is this war to end immediately;” “Syria will never be the same again”. One cannot help but feel a palpable sense of grief, evident from the testimonies of a people who have lost everything.
Homs, for one, divided into several parts – is like a ghost city- bombed, battered and bruised. On May 9 2014, Syrian troops recaptured the Old City from the rebels after a two-year siege- but the consequences for those who remained have been just immense. I spoke to several of the youth here- they desperately yearn for peace; at the same time, they look for any possibility, or chance, to move out of the country – for better prospects, for future of hope, elsewhere.
Trust has been another casualty of this war. No one knows whom to trust and whom not to; there are the big players in opposite camps – supported by the military might of the Super-powers; at the same time many more groups and factions have emerged – each claiming a kind of a “divine right” to exercise their stranglehold on sections of the population.
There are also the extremists (like the ISIS and the Nusra Front- the Syrian affiliate of the Al-Qaeda) who would apparently do anything to ensure that this war continues endlessly. People tend to be cautious, very selective in their use of words. They speak under the veil of anonymity. They fear that they may be misquoted or reported to those who ‘currently’ control their lives.
On February 27, 2016 an unprecedented ‘cessation of hostilities’ came into force. It applied to combat zones between the Russian–backed regime forces and the non-militant rebels. Sadly, this ceasefire did not extend to the more than half of the country’s territory that is controlled by the extremist groups. In several parts of the country one can still hear and even witness heavy bombardment. Naturally, several Syrians are still very skeptical about this truce and continue to despair, “the truce has not changed anything in my life. The war-planes still hover above us”, lamented one of them.
There are several stake–holders in this war. Many of these are powerful and that includes the UN Security Council. What many feel, is that in the ultimate analysis the key players must demonstrate the political will to stop this war.
Fragile though this true currently is, after five years of devastating conflict, this phase has slowly begun to rekindle minimal aspirations. The simple hope that this war and senseless violence that has ripped apart Syrian society, may end. The light at the end of the dark tunnel? The average Syrian is desperate to clutch at any straw having lived through a conflict that has meant death, destruction and displacement.
On March 14, 2016, today, the UN- brokered talks will resume in Geneva.
Will these actually change the ground reality and ensure sustainable peace? Many doubt it; but several others have expressed support for the recommencement of the negotiations between the warring parties with the demand that, at some crucial point within the negotiating process, the UN mediation team should and must grant space for genuine bipartisan civil society groups to share their vision for a new post-conflict Syria. This has not happened, so far.
Since the very beginning of this conflict, many community-based groups have been engaged in providing humanitarian assistance to people in need across the social, cultural, tribal, sectarian and religious divide; this help was given exclusively on the basis of vulnerability and where the need was greatest. Overtime, these groups have faced difficulties in continuing their mission but others still manage to do so, despite being faced with enormous difficulties and danger. Within such a polarised context, it is essential that members of these groups are given the opportunity to share their views about how to bring back together fractured communities and help prepare them for future cohabitation in the Syria of tomorrow.
Early February 2016, the Donors’ Conference hosted in London under the auspices of the governments of the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany and Norway showed some international involvement in sharing of responsibility for Syria’s re-construction and the rehabilitation of Syrian IDPs with host countries Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The unending war has dealt a blow to education for the refugee children. Therefore, the commitment by several countries to ensure that all Syrian refugee children are in regular schools by the end of the school year 2016-2017 is a widely welcomed step. The barriers in ensuring easy access and entry to schools for Syrian refugee children, however remain.
There are several stake–holders in this war. Many of these are powerful and that includes the UN Security Council. What many feel, is that in the ultimate analysis the key players must demonstrate the political will to stop this war. Until that time, millions of Syrians -- today the ‘nowhere’ people of the world-- will continue to despair and flee as fast as possible from a daily nightmare that there life has become.
The fifth anniversary yes - but there is nothing to celebrate; only painfully memories of five bloody years which have wrought untold misery on a sizeable section of the world’s population.
(The writer is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon as the Advocacy and Communications Officer of the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the Middle East and North Africa Region)