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Resisting Hell's Maelstrom

By       Message Franklin P. Lamb     Permalink
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Founded in 1942, as the French colonizers withdrew from this 7000-year-old civilization that they occupied in 1917, as part of the English-French Sykes-Picot arrangement.  The Syria Arab Red Crescent society became linked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1946. SARC receives no government funding. This observer had the opportunity to meet SARC staff and volunteers of such singular commitment to helping their countrymen that more than a dozen have given their lives while trying to bring assistance to those stranded in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and elsewhere. One SARC team leader to me: "When one of our people is  killed we bury the martyr and by the next morning we have 20 or more new volunteers who want to take their place and bring aid to those trapped in the most dangerous areas. I must tell you that this hell we are living through--we are confronting directly--it has made me very proud of my people and to be Syrian. Enshallah, we will overcome this chaos and killing and we will be stronger than before as a people."

At the United Nations on 11/5/12, a top relief official said the UN aid effort in Syria, which means mainly SARC's volunteers, "is very dangerous and very difficult." The official, John Ging, director of operations of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, stated that the aid efforts in Syria (mainly being done by SARC volunteers) was supplying 1.5 million people in with food and that nearly half was being delivered into areas of conflict, but "there are areas beyond our reach, particularly areas under opposition control for quite a long time."

Despite UNCHR's role in studying the refugee problem and coordinating yet more studies and some registration of aid applicants during the current crisis, some familiar with its activities in Syria, including a few other NGOs and some Syrian officials, have been critical of its performance to date. One highly respected governmental official told this observer recently, "I said to UNCHR's local administration, 'We have noticed the many fine vehicles that you flew into Syria, and we have met some of the well-paid staff that you have brought to help us, but please can you show us that you have to date delivered even one loaf of bread to our desperate people?'"

In fairness to UNCHR, after an admittedly slow start in Syria, it has recently picked up steam and its international staff is learning much from the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers.

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Nor is SARC is without its critics.

Tawfik Chamaa, spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), speaking from his comfortable Geneva office issued an ad holmium broadside on 11/6/12 against the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and its nearly 11,000 volunteers. He charged that cash or materials sent to SARC was being "confiscated by the regime. It will not reach the civilians who are bombed every day or besieged," telling reporters in Geneva, "Ninety, even 95 percent of everything that is sent to Syrian Red Crescent headquarters in Damascus goes to support the Syrian regime, especially the soldiers."

However, according to AFP, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN World Food Program (WFP), which both work closely with the Syrian Red Crescent Society, they strongly denied their aid was being seized by the government or anyone else. This observer, during the late night of 11/7/12, contacted "Wassim", a friend and a volunteer at the Damascus SARC HQ, who last week arranged visits for me of SARC aid-distribution centers.  Wassim also flatly denied the UOSSM report. (Wassim is reachable c/o  Email address removed .) Wassim informed this observer on the evening of 11/7/12 that SARC will immediately prepare a response to the USOOM allegations.

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UOSSM itself has been criticized, as have a few other NGOs working in Syria, for becoming politicized and polarized and for being an inordinately top-heavy administratively with bloated salaries and "humanitarian team leaders" sitting in offices in Paris or Geneva and elsewhere far from Syria.  Mr. Chamaa himself is a high-salaried founding member of the Western group of 14 aid organizations from countries including France, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. According to SARC volunteers working in field aid distribution centers in Syria, Mr Chamaa could learn more were he to visit Syria and actually observe what's happening on the ground before making unsupported claims. The UOSSM was set up at the beginning of the year mainly by Syrian doctors living in NATO countries.  Some speculate that UOSSM hopes to be part of a possible future NATO-affiliated "transition team" while others claim its political charges against SARC volunteers, without proof, are irresponsible and hurt those suffering most in Syria. Such alarmist press releases tend to damp down much-needed donations of medical aid and necessities. This affects directly the 1.5 million people inside Syria who are in need of emergency humanitarian aid.

In response to Charmaa's sensationalistic headline-grabbing charges, UN World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told the media on 11/7/12, "I believe there is absolutely no confiscation. WFP food monitors are able to visit most areas to check that food is reaching the people who need it most. Even in some dangerous areas, they use WFP armored vehicles." She insisted that the Red Crescent, "as the designated coordinator of humanitarian assistance in Syria, operates through branches in an independent manner."

The ICRC said it was aware of Chamaa's allegations. Its HQ stated on 11/7/12, "Whenever such facts are clearly established, which does not appear to be the case in Syria, we treat them very seriously and would address directly the management of (the Syrian Red Crescent) and Syrian authorities." ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk stressed that the ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent "strive to assist all populations in need without any discrimination, which is a challenging task given the deteriorating humanitarian situation and security conditions." The ICRC and SARC volunteers recently managed to deliver medical and food aid to 1,200 people in the Old City of Homs, and since the beginning of the year they have provided food, water and other assistance to more than one million people across Syria, according to ICRC spokeswoman Anastasia Isyuk and as reported by AFP.

On 11/8/12, exhibiting exasperation, a sense of foreboding and just a whiff of defeatism, ICRC president Peter Maurer announced to a conference in Geneva that "We are in a situation where the humanitarian situation due to the conflict is getting worse. And we can't cope with the worsening of the situation. We have a lot of blank spots, we know that no aid has been there and I can't tell you what the situation is or what we can do."

In a late-breaking development Friday morning, 11/9/12, the UN human rights chief expressed concern after the ICRC said it was struggling to deliver aid in war-ravaged Syria. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told AFP during an interview at the Bali Democracy Forum in Indonesia, "The fact that they've now said they are unable to perform their core functions makes the humanitarian crisis in Syria extremely critical. Nearly hopeless." 

Don't tell that to Zeinab Tamari, a thirties-something Palestinian volunteer from the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus who is traveling across Syria bringing aid and relief to her fellow Arabs.

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And don't tell either it to Syrian student Mahar Saad, whose home was destroyed during fighting in Homs and who daily risks his life remaining in his neighborhood helping his neighbors despite losing family members in the fighting.   Both are SARC volunteers who appeared without being asked at one of the aid organizations outlets across Syria to help.  They inspire hope for Syria and for all humanity, regardless of the outcome of the current crisis.

The staff and volunteers who perform the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society's humanitarian work undertaken in the main by Syrians for Syrians and with Syrians are a credit to their country and warrant the blessings and support all people of good will as they risk their lives to bring aid to their countrymen.

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Since 2013, Professor Franklin P. Lamb has traveled extensively throughout Syria. His primary focus has been to document, photograph, research and hopefully help preserve the vast and irreplaceable archaeological sites and artifacts in (more...)

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