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Syria: it wasn't meant to be this way

15 March 2018, Emergencies

Syria wasn't always in the headlines. It wasn't always synonymous with war. There was a time when it was better known for its historic beauty than its heartbreaking bloodshed. What's happened in the past seven years?

“Syria is a modern, efficient and very proud nation with an administration that is becoming more liberal and outward looking by the day … Fortunately, all this modernisation doesn’t mean that Syria has lost sight of its past. The country has more than its fair share of significant historical sites, all of which are respectfully maintained by the authorities. The ancient cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra are all listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, as is the sensationally beautiful ruined city of Palmyra.”1

Syria has been ravaged by one of the most complex and brutal conflicts of our time. Seven years ago, it was a country known for its historic significance and awe-inspiring sites. Now, we’re used to seeing a constant flow of tragic news stories from places like Homs, Raqqa and Aleppo. Children are subjected to extraordinary suffering – and the longer it goes on, the more we’re in danger of allowing what’s happening there to become a new normal.

Since 2011, it’s estimated half a million Syrians have been killed.

It began with protests. The Syrian people wanted democratic reform and increased political freedom, and they took to the street to demand it. It was part of a wave of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring. For a moment, a sense of optimism took hold across the region.

But, by the end of the year, news reports no longer talked about unrest and uprisings, but instead, civil war.

Since then, the conflict has become increasingly complex, with many different players. And it’s estimated that 500,000 people have lost their lives – three quarters of them civilians. Airstrikes and shelling have caused the majority of deaths. In besieged areas, starvation and lack of access to healthcare have also caused loss of life.

More than 5.5 million people have fled the country in search of safety.

People have fled violence in Syria at an incredible rate. By March 2013, 1 million people had sought refuge in other countries. By September 2013, it was 2 million. By October 2014, 3 million. By July 2015, 4 million. Now, more than 5.5 million people have fled the country – leaving their homes, their towns, their villages, everything they know, behind. Most have no idea when they will be able to return. In 2017 alone, an average of 1,731 people fled the country each day.

The majority of people who have fled Syria are now in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Almost half are children.

World Heritage Sites that are thousands of years old have been damaged or destroyed.

The Ancient City of Damascus. The Ancient City of Bosra. The Site of Palmyra. The Ancient City of Aleppo. Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din. The Ancient Villages of Northern Syria.

Historic sites must meet at least one of ten selection criteria for inclusion in UNESCO's World Heritage List. Syria’s six sites met multiple of these, including ‘represents a masterpiece of human creative genius’ and ‘bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared’. But the war has damaged or destroyed large parts of these sites, and they're now on the World Heritage in Danger list. Once gone, they’re gone for good.

Almost 3 million people are in besieged or hard-to-reach areas within Syria.

The number of people living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas peaked at the end of 2016. There were 5 million people trapped in various parts of Syria without supplies or healthcare. While the figure now stands at about 3 million, the needs of people in these areas are exceptionally severe.

Life in besieged and hard-to-reach areas is often the focus of news stories because of the intensity of suffering. These days, Homs, Raqqa and Aleppo are familiar to us for horrifying images of airstrike-inflicted injuries, not their history their culture, their architecture. Footage from eastern Ghouta is currently horrifying the world.

Children and families living in besieged locations are denied their basic rights. They can’t access adequate water, food or healthcare. Their movements are restricted. And it’s difficult to get humanitarian aid in and sick people out.

More than a third of schools have been damaged or destroyed.

Before the conflict, Syria had a strong education system. School enrolment rates were close to 100%. Now, close to half of Syria’s schools are no longer functioning. A quarter of teaching personnel are no longer in their posts - they’ve either been killed or have fled with their families. The impact on education is greatest in areas like eastern Aleppo, where almost every single school has been destroyed.

The implications for children are huge. Education is a powerful thing in a crisis. It gives children a sense of normalcy in their lives. It can give them a chance to keep learning and give them hope for the future. Without it, children are left with very little.

"At the time of writing, Syria was one of the most dangerous places on the planet. To put it simply, you can’t go. And if you can, you shouldn’t. The uprising against the Assad regime that began in early 2011 long ago became a civil war. Syrians themselves have paid the heaviest price: as many as 475,000 people have died in the conflict and millions have been forced into exile … In addition to the human cost, entire cities have been laid waste and untold damage has been done to some of the Middle East's most important historical and archaeological sites. Put simply, Syria is a war zone, and peace seems as far away as at any time since war began in 2011."2

1. Lonely Planet, March 2011
2. Lonely Planet, March 2018

 
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