This week marks three years since the crisis in Syria began. The UN estimates that 9 million people in Syria need aid, including 3.5 million people living in areas where aid groups cannot reach them.
At the most severe end of the scale are the 250,000 people living in besieged areas, without access to supplies of food, medicines and other essentials. One of these areas is the Old City of Homs in western Syria. At the beginning of February, a UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy made it into the city for the first time in a year. UN Humanitarian Coordinator Yacoub El Hillo led the mission. He spoke with UNOCHA.org earlier this week.
We reached Homs on 8 February – it was the UN’s first mission there in a year.
The Old City of Homs has been under siege for 600 days. Arriving there was shocking, it was overwhelming, it was painful to see the frail people, the weak and elderly, and the traumatized children.
But it was equally shocking to see the massive destruction and devastation. This is one of the world’s ancient spots. This is a World Heritage Site. This is a place where, over centuries, humanity was rich in culture, in art, in history.
But today this is a spot where, when we came out, I described the experience as ‘a day from hell’.
“It is a place to die”
Their feedback was […] immediate and without any sweeteners. “Where have you been?” “What took you so long?”
They told us about how they live, or about how they do not live. They took us to the hospital. It is not a place to be cured; it is a place to die. There is very little and very primitive capacity and equipment to deal with very complex cases.
[The people] were all thin. Each one would tell you that they had lost 20-25 kgs over the past 600 days. They would show us pictures of how they looked before. The people there have not had a systematic or regular supply of food or other essential items.
“They are living under the ground”
The people there live under the ground. Between all these ancient buildings that made the Old city of Homs they dug passages so that they could walk through the buildings and not on the streets. They did this so they could avoid the sniper fire.
It is an appalling situation. Those that were lucky enough to come out [about 1,400 were evacuated by Yacoub and his colleagues], it’s like they are coming out of the caves. One thing the men immediately asked for was a barber.
But what was also lacking was food, what was lacking was medical supplies, what was lacking was hygiene supplies, what was lacking was winter supplies. It is a very cold winter in Syria.
This is complex. We are in regular contact with the Government. But in situations like Homs – when we want to reach people where the opposition armed groups are in control - we need to talk to everybody, including the armed groups.
And that’s exactly what we did in the case of the Old City of Homs. And that discussion took three weeks before we actually went to deliver aid and facilitate the exit of those civilians wishing to come out.
This shouldn’t be a one-off effort. This should be a regular undertaking.
“Our goal is simple”
By going there, and by experiencing a lot of security challenges [Yacoub’s convoy was fired upon at one stage], I think we reaffirmed that the UN will not shy away from trying to reach people in need, even if that comes with risk.
Our goal is simple. Our goal is to deliver vaccines to children under five; to deliver food for people who have not had access to it for so long; to deliver basic, very basic, requirements to people who, three years ago, did not need this support.
Three years ago, Syria was the world’s third largest refugee hosting country. It was a middle income country. Syrians were living in a decent way. Today they are relying on handouts. So, by going to the Old City of Homs I think it was important for us as the UN to say: We may have been late, but we are here. And we will not stop here.