Syria first responders remind UN of humanitarian catastrophe
NEW YORK // An enormous explosion ripped through the darkness and awoke Raed Saleh early one morning in the Syrian town of Darkush.
An emergency first responder with the Syrian Civil Defence forces, Mr Saleh and his team donned helmets and rushed to the apartment building that was hit, even as another barrel bomb struck the town, located in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
“We responded very quickly, but we had only very light equipment and nothing to fight the fire with,” Mr Saleh said, recalling the attack, which occurred a year ago. “That was the most difficult day I have experienced. We couldn’t help. We could only collect the burnt corpses.”
Mr Saleh is in New York to meet officials at the 69th United Nations General Assembly in hopes they will provide more humanitarian assistance to Syria through projects such as his.
Mr Saleh and a Syrian refugee based in Turkey who helps administer the group, Farouq Al Habib, 33, met with the UN special envoy for the Syrian crisis, Staffan de Mistura.
The special envoy told them that he “would talk to relevant UN agencies to see how they can assist civil defence groups to reduce the suffering of civilians”, according to a UN spokesman. UN aid agencies are no longer legally bound to work with Damascus on initiatives inside Syria.
Mr Saleh, 30, had joined the peaceful protests against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in 2011. Later, he was forced to flee to Turkey as violence consumed the country. While there, he was selected in 2013 to take part in a British-led course to train refugees who wanted to be first responders.
Last year, he returned to help establish the Syrian Civil Defence force, which trains residents to be emergency first responders as the regime continues its attacks on rebel-held areas.
But even with its initial British and US funding, their equipment can’t keep pace with the regime’s violence, which has escalated since an international coalition declared war on ISIL and announced plans to bolster moderate rebels opposed Mr Mr Al Assad.
“If Syrians are given support they will be able to build other organisations to provide services,” Mr Saleh said. Yet, despite the devastation in Syria, the UN General Assembly is focused on the fight against ISIL. Millions of Syrians caught up in the conflict are still at risk from starvation and disease.
The pair also met with representatives from the Friends of Syria countries that support the opposition, but no specific commitments were made, Mr Al Habib said.
“Most of their statements were regarding ISIL.”
In December, the World Food Programme said it will run out of money used to feed more than four million displaced Syrians.
The funding crisis for programmes that are crucial to providing basic needs for an estimated 10.8 million internal and external Syrians refugees is not limited to the WFP, UN officials say.
Even after Gulf Arab countries, the biggest donors to displaced and war-affected Syrians, began funnelling their money through the UN rather than through local charities last year, its agencies are unable to keep up with the fast-growing demand.
Yacoub El Hillo, the highest ranking UN humanitarian official in Syria, said that only one third of the $6.8 billion UN agencies had requested from international donors this year has been met.
“I’m concerned about this year, but I am really more concerned about next year,” he said.
Next month, the WFP said it will cut food rations by 40 per cent to the 4.2 million Syrians it reaches, with funds soon running out completely.
With winter fast approaching, “this year UNHCR has received no funding” for warm clothes, heating and reinforced housing for refugees, who are particularly vulnerable to winter conditions, Mr El Hillo said.
The World Health Organisation’s Syria programmes, including polio vaccination schemes, are at less than one third of required funding, he added. UNRWA is already cutting its assistance to thousands of Palestinian refugees in the country.
The world isn’t running out of money, Mr Hillo said. But as the war drags on through its fourth year, and global attention has shifted to the threat of ISIL, “that is where the resources are becoming more and more focused”.
The pool of resources provided by traditional donors is also shrinking as crises multiply around the world, and the speed at which funds are raised simply cannot keep pace with Syria’s demands.
“The number of people affected now as compared to the situation in January when there was the last donor’s conference is more serious, but it is not accompanied by fresh funding,” Mr El Hillo said.
This makes finding funding for groups like Mr Saleh’s ever more difficult.
Groups like the Civil Defence first responders have learnt to be creative with what they have, but they can’t save as many lives as a result.
“We have shortage on all levels,” Mr Al Habib said. “We don’t have enough vehicles, firefighting and digging equipment, and not enough funds for operating expenses.”
Last Friday, one of Mr Saleh’s men were killed when a second barrel bomb was dropped as they dug through the rubble looking for survivors of an earlier strike.
He doubted that the US-led coalition’s airstrikes on Syria would stop the war.
“We know who is responsible for the killing and it is the regime,” Mr Al Habib said. “Bombing ISIL will not stop the barrel bombs.”
* The special envoy for Syria did not promise to get UN funding for equipment as an earlier version of this article indicated.
Updated: September 26, 2014 04:00 AM