AMMAN, Jordan, 8 May 2013 – When I arrived in Jordan for my third mission to the region on April 5th, Za’atari camp had more than 100,000 refugees; five times the amount since my first visit 8 months ago in September 2012. The total number of refugees spread over 4 countries is more than 1.4 million Syrian people today (Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey). The needs are great and it’s hard to keep up. UNICEF uses a 20 per cent factor to plan for education service delivery; that is an estimate of 280,000 displaced school age children in the region. In Za’atari alone we are delivering 3.5 million litres of water every day to meet the demand of refugees.
A few days after arriving in Amman I was informed of my deployment to Syria to support the team at the country office. I flew to Beirut early morning and after a 2 hour drive I arrived in Damascus. The same day I arrived, my colleague Bart took me for a walk after work. That night I met a group of young university students in a nearby café. It was very surreal to walk along the streets with people carrying on normal daily activities with the heavy noise of shelling on the background. That feeling lasted for the next two weeks.
As I sipped my fresh brewed Turkish coffee a few days later, the man at the stall explained the history of the place where I am standing in the old city of Damascus. As he wondered about his wife and children now living in Beirut he tells me: This is the Arch of Jupiter built by the Romans. The pillars are set over Greek foundations that lead to the main mosque in the old town. The right side of the great mosque of the Umayyad, as you enter, is a Byzantine structure, and the whole complex is built over a Phoenician temple.
This is the oldest living city in the world, founded in the 3rd millennium BC, and a UNESCO world heritage site. These historical facts have little meaning in the context of a brutal armed conflict that is more than 2 years old. The old city of Aleppo has already been destroyed by mortar and live ammunition and many fear for the life of the old city here in Damascus.
Thinking back to that first night, after talking to the students at the café, I realized that this is the first time that I met young people who have lost all hope for a more humane resolution that would save the lives of people and the historical heritage of their country.
“They don’t want a political solution at this stage,” a young architect told me.
“After 2 years they just want to kill each other without thinking of the consequences,” a young doctor added.
Everyone agreed that the final battle of Damascus was looming closer and closer and the destruction of the ancient city was irreversible. So far the conflict has taken the lives of more than 70,000 Syrian people.
But the biggest fight I witnessed was that of Abdil, a 2-year-old little boy living with cancer. As we were completing the inspection of the latrines, I noticed his frail eyes and soft skin. Abdil and his family live in the school that was set up as a shelter in Damascus for internally displaced persons or IDPs. Children in the shelter do not have access to a proper learning space or educational material. The sanitation and water system is on the brink of collapse increasing the chances for spread of disease.
AAs politicians and diplomats discuss a potential end to the conflict, Abdil needs chemotherapy treatments every 20 days to reduce the 4-inch tumor in his stomach. His mother told my colleague Ibrahim that at this point no one knows if he will survive. When I see his picture I am moved by the dignified way he looks at the camera, almost in defiance and a strong will to survive.
Now back in Amman, as the news reports big explosions and air strikes in Damascus today, I think of Abdil.
By Carlos Vasquez