15th March 2021 marks 10 years since the start of the conflict in Syria, and the humanitarian crisis is only getting worse. Humanity & Inclusion (HI) is working in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt with Syrians who have lost everything and need humanitarian aid to survive.
Humanitarian needs are immense, while access to people in need remains a major challenge. Even when the conflict ends, rebuilding Syria will take generations. The level of destruction of infrastructure, contamination by explosive devices – a level unprecedented in the history of mine clearance – and the scale of population displacement are enormous challenges to overcome.
The humanitarian context
A decade of conflict, and Syria is in a severe state of humanitarian crisis. This is made worse as there are three crises happening at the same time; the ongoing conflict, an acute economic crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Humanitarian workers struggle to access all communities in need and face mounting security risks. In 2020, there were 65 recorded attacks on aid workers; nearly half of those attacked were killed. It is estimated that there have been at least 100,000 COVID-19 cases in Government of Syria-controlled territory alone.
At least a third of homes in Syria are damaged or destroyed. Major cities like Raqqa, Aleppo and Homs have been largely destroyed by extensive and intense use of explosive weapons. 80% of the city of Raqqa was destroyed in 2017. Massive, continuous bombing and shelling have left millions of people without homes and forced them to flee.
As health infrastructure has been destroyed by bombing, services are unable to cope with the extra pressures of COVID-19. Only half of the hospitals and primary healthcare centres across Syria are fully functional. Even before the pandemic, more Syrians are estimated to have died from the breakdown of the health system than directly from the fighting.
A country contaminated by explosive weapons
The level of contamination in Syria is unprecedented in the history of mine clearance. The contamination from unexploded ordnance (UXO), i.e. bombs, rockets and mortars that did not explode on impact, and other explosive hazards such as landmines and booby traps, is so severe that it will take generations to make Syria safe. Contamination with explosive remnants of war is one of the significant obstacles preventing the safe return of refugees and displaced persons in Syria. This contamination will also be a major obstacle in rebuilding Syria, its economy, and social fabric. Rebuilding cities and infrastructure in Syria will require complex and expensive clearance operations.
What makes contamination in Syria different?
1. The first reason is the very wide range of weapons used.
Emmanuel Savage, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at HI, said:
“After a decade of conflict, Syrian soil is contaminated by a complete spectrum of explosive weapons including unexploded bombs, explosive remnants and booby traps, and improvised mines.”
2. The second is the fact that urban and peri-urban areas are the worst affected.
Emmanuel Savage added:
“You find the widest range of explosive weapons in cities. We know from experience that it is particularly difficult to clear urban areas. In Raqqa, for example, where 80% of the city has been destroyed, the ground is littered with rubble mixed with explosive remnants and booby traps left behind by the belligerent parties. In Laos, they are still clearing weapons 45 years after the Vietnam War, so I think it will take at least two generations to clear Syria.”
Anne Hery, Director of Advocacy at HI, said:
“Over and over again, we see the human suffering caused by urban bombing. It must stop. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and recently in Nagorno-Karabakh, we have witnessed disastrous consequences for civilians in cities subjected to carpet-bombing. We have won the fight against landmines (1999) and cluster munitions (2008), we have now a historic opportunity to clearly say ENOUGH to urban bombings. States must recognise the indiscriminate human suffering caused by bombing in populated areas and their lasting effects. They must protect civilians.”
In 2015, Salam was injured by a cluster munition, an object which she thought was a toy in the ground. Children, like Salam, are particularly at risk of the consequences of explosive weapons. Children have thinner skin, more flexible bones and greater heat and fluid sensitivity. They are less likely to survive blast injuries, and when they do, their injuries are frequently for life. HI worked with Salam to provide rehabilitation and psychosocial support following her injury.