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Two views on Syria's growing humanitarian crisis

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Two views on Syria's growing humanitarian crisis

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It has been seven years since Syrians took the streets to demand their freedom and more socio-economic rights. The uprising which originally started as peaceful protests has morphed into a full-scale civil and proxy war now entering its eighth year, with no immediate end in sight or an immediate ceasefire in embattled areas.

Point of view

All Syrians are now hostages to one group or another, and it is the people who pay the highest price.

Raphael Pitti Doctor

The unabated violence has claimed more than half a million lives, and displaced millions in and outside Syria. Sanctuaries such as schools and hospitals have been hit and at times even deliberately targeted. Parts of the country are destroyed beyond recognition. The list of horrors is sadly endless.

At the heart of the conflict and devastation are helpless civilians. To help us shed light on their plight, we will be talking to two guests. First, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children International. The NGO she oversees has declared Syria the number one most dangerous country for children and is currently providing humanitarian assistance to 2.5 million people in Syria, including 1.7 million children.

Euronews will also be talking to Dr. Raphaël Pitti. He is a French medical doctor and has undertaken more than 20 missions in Syria’s war zones since 2012 and trained Syrian doctors and nurses there.

Sophie Claudet, euronews:

“With the war now entering its eighth year, can we say that the international community has failed the Syrian people?”

Helle Thoorning-Schmidt:

“I think we have to conclude that the international community has failed the Syrian people and the Syrian children, and I do have a big worry, that this escalation of the conflict, the fact that UN are now confirming that chemicals again have been used as weapon in Syria, the horrors that we are seeing, of almost 2 million people in besieged areas and hard-to- reach areas are denied food and also medical assistance. This is a new level of horror and I really fear that we are accepting this as the new normal. Basically it’s a war on children. If you start bombing civilian areas, if you start bombing schools and hospitals, it is a war on children and we should not accept that.”

Sophie Claudet:

“2017 was indeed the deadliest year for Syrian children. Already in 2018 1000 children have been killed or injured. Do you think this heavy toll is due to the nature of this conflict, namely aerial bombings?”

Helle Thorning-Schmidt:

“It is due to a number of things and what we are seeing is that when warfare moves to areas where lots of civilians live, which is basically towns, and don’t forget Eastern Ghouta is basically a suburb of Damascus, many many people live there, and when war moves into these areas, it is an attack on civilians and particularly children.”

Sophie Claudet:

“How about the number of child soldiers? Apparently the numbers have tripled since 2015”

Helle Thorning-Schmidt:

“What happens to children in war is basically that they are at increased risk of being targeted as child soldiers, there’s an increased risk of child labour, increased risk of sexual abuse, and of course we are seeing many more girls being married as very young children, married off because that feels like the safest place to be for their families and also because they become an economic burden on their families.”

Sophie Claudet:

“Let’s now talk about the long-term impact of this conflict, namely psychological trauma.”

Helle Thorning-Schmidt:

“What we are seeing is that these children are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Many of us will not know what that is, but that is children who are hiding or going into acute stress when they hear bombings, children who are wetting their beds, children who can’t sleep, and basically children who cannot function in a normal way.

And I’m asking the international community, how can we ask these children to build up their country if they have no education? We have more than 1.7 million children in Syria who are out of school because their schools are being bombed. They have no education, they are malnourished, they are extremely scared, they are suffering from toxic stress, how can these children ever build up Syria again?”

Dr. Raphael Pitti is a French medical doctor who has trained medical personnel in Syria’s war zones, and has seen the violence up close.

Sophie Claudet:

“Professeur Raphael Pitti, you are an ER specialist, and have visited Syria 21 times. Tell us what it’s like on the ground, knowing that hospitals are sometimes under fire, sometimes deliberately: How do you make people well in these conditions, with what medicines, and with what personnel?”

Raphaël Pitti:

“When you are in a hospital with no supplies you see how conditions deteriorate and that has a direct effect on how you handle the flow of casualties.

You have to choose; triage becomes vital and there will be a certain number of patients who you could certainly have treated in different conditions, but here, with the numbers we have to deal with and lack of supplies, you will leave to die.”

Sophie Claudet:

“We can imagine there’s also a shortage of doctors, not only because the best-qualified doctors have left, but also because doctors don’t escape bombings!”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Often the most competent doctors, after two or three years they couldn’t take it any more and left with their families. They were often replaced with medical students. Often people with no training at all offered their help. We have seen cleaning staff take on nursing duties, and then some becoming midwives. We’ve seen students become nurses, first year undergrads become vascular surgeons.”

Sophie Claudet:

“We are now looking at some 500,000 deaths, a half-million, but what about the survivors? How do you survive war wounds from aerial bombardment, from barrel bombs?”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Because of the lack of materials and conditions that I have already described, we can’t fix people. We have to prioritize life over function, so when we amputate, which we do a lot, we don’t look beyond the immediate goal, saving the patient.

This means there’s an entire generation, thousands of people, who face a handicapped future in a devastated country. It will be a heavy burden for Syria to carry, to try and look after all these people while rebuilding the country.”

Sophie Claudet:

“In several of your interviews you’ve spoken about the destruction of the sanitation system.Can you elaborate for us?”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Since 2011 the regime has been directly targeting medical facilities. Damascus has always wanted to send the message that rebel-held areas are unsafe for their populations.

Syria had well-organised health and sanitary facilities until 2011, but it has all collapsed completely. Long-term, chronic illnesses are no longer treated, there are no vaccination programmes, and of course cancer patients, diabetics or those with high blood pressure, etcetera, etcetera, get nothing. Today we can estimate that around 1.5 million people have died in Syria indirectly because of the ruined health system.”

Sophie Claudet:

“So that means two million dead, in total.”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Absolutely.”

Sophie Claudet:

“Your last visit to Syria was four months ago. However you remain in contact with your colleagues on the ground, with your colleagues in Ghouta. What is the latest news?”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Ghouta has been encircled now since 2013, and has been under siege for the past nine months. Malnutrition had already set in, and it has been bombed daily this last month, with every imaginable form of conventional weapon,and also with napalm,cluster bombs and missiles.

It’s constant. It is every day, and if we add the occasional use of chlorine gas, there were six such attacks in one month. So today in Ghouta people are like rats living underground in caves, and from time to time they are so crowded that they come out in the open air to sleep hoping they won’t be bombed.”

Sophie Claudet:

“Is it fair to say that in this war civilians are caught in a vice, between government forces and rebels, and that they are the victims of both sides?”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Yes. this is true for every single Syrian.”

Sophie Claudet:

“Have you personally witnessed any crime committed by the rebels? They have been accused of using chemical weapons themselves.”

Raphaël Pitti:

“Of course the rebels have almost certainly used them. The Syrian population has travelled a long way from the revolution it had hoped for, with more freedoms. All Syrians are now hostages to one group or another, and it is the people who pay the highest price.”

Sophie Claudet:

“Dr. Raphael Pitti, thank you. I remind everyone your book, “Go where humanity carries you”, is just out. Don’t forget you can read more about this and other stories on our website and via social media.”