Facebook   Twitter   Instagram   Youtube

Children are not getting a childhood in Syria

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why I can’t watch other people’s children die when mine are safe

Guest blog by Louise Tickle
Being gassed in your home as you sleep, your children dying next to you – or worse, seeing them choking and suffocating as you yourself fight in agony for what you know, through fading consciousness, are your final breaths – is a barely conceivable horror. But it’s happening in Syria, and because of the bravery of citizen journalists who rushed to film the dreadful aftermath of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in August 2013, we don’t need to rely on our imaginations. We saw those children, some having expired quietly in the arms of their parents, others dying in fear and pain tended by strangers who tried desperately to administer the correct antidote. Until more dying civilians were rushed in, and all the antidote ran out.

All but one of the activists who brought that atrocity to our attention died themselves from the effects of the gas attack after broadcasting their footage to the world. And though this single massacre hit the news because of the 1429 people who died – 426 of them children – it’s just one of many ways of losing your life in Syria today.

How can a normal person possibly respond to pictures of schoolchildren arriving at a field hospital with massive body burns, shivering, in shock, in unbearable pain…?  The BBC report last month that showed the victims of an incendiary bomb attack near Aleppo made me freeze in horror, in much the same way as the YouTube footage of the Houla massacre of families including small children and babies that happened in June a year before that.

I’m a journalist who covers education, social affairs and international development issues, but I’m also the mum of two little boys, aged five and two. The Syrian civil war has affected me like no other conflict, and I know that’s because suddenly, with small children of my own now, there is a raw understanding of the preciousness of life, and the effort, love and selflessness invested in growing, giving birth to and then nurturing our babies so they have the chance to become the best people they can be.

Tens of thousands of Syrian children will never have that chance. Ever since the Houla massacre, I’ve purposely looked at the pictures of tiny, dead children in white cotton shrouds, and, far worse, footage of terribly injured children dying. A child taking their last, painful breaths, who just a few minutes before was laughing, playing, or peacefully sleeping is the most horrendous thing to watch.

Their agony, and that of their parents, is something that we in the UK mostly never see, and I think that’s wrong. I choose to look, occasionally, at this kind of footage compiled by citizen journalists in Syria, out of respect for the suffering of people who have no control over the destruction wreaked upon them – an unfashionable view in this country, where our news media shields us from the disgusting obscenity of human bodies, torn apart by shells fired indiscriminately into civilian areas.

But there is no point in looking and in knowing if you don’t do something. And that ‘something’ can be hard to work out. The politics is beyond me – it appears to be beyond everyone. And that means that humanitarian and medical aid is essential to support those who are trying to survive through this conflict, if there is to be a Syria, and a Syrian people, when the violence finally ceases.

A group of business people and NHS professionals of Syrian descent who work all over the UK now run a charity called Hand in Hand for Syria. It’s currently one of the only organisations able to get medical aid and expertise deep inside the country, to the ‘hot’ zones where the conflict rages the worst and where people need them most. These are the obstetricians, anaesthetists, paediatricians and orthopaedic consultants who treat you and me when we need their care – and they are volunteering their time, and their lives, right now, to bring medical help to families for whom it is literally a matter of life and death.

Imagine you’re pregnant, but you’ve fled your village on foot because it’s not safe. You’re living in an ‘internally displaced people’ camp – squalid, overcrowded, insanitary – desperately trying to get over the border to Turkey, but nobody will let you through. You go into labour early, there are complications, the baby won’t come – and there is no medical help at all. This is how people die in wartime. They’re the unseen, unknown deaths. They’re not counted. And they happen all the time.

This was the situation in the Atmeh area of Syria, near the Turkish border, until earlier in 2013 when Hand in Hand for Syria funded and staffed the only children’s hospital in the whole northwest region. It’s not big or fancy; it’s set up in what used to be an ordinary council building. But there are 20 beds for ill children who need specialist care, and more recently they have added an 18-bedded women’s unit and a small operating theatre with qualified obstetricians who can deal with complex deliveries and emergency Caesareans. They also have ten incubators for premature or ill babies.

I fundraise for this charity because they provide, in a highly practical way, the targeted help that people need to survive, and because they can do it inside Syria where nobody else can. They take enormous risks: volunteer doctors and other medical staff working with Hand in Hand have been killed as a result of shelling. And their colleagues still go back. A volunteer anaesthetist, Dr Rola Hallam, was at a Hand in Hand for Syria hospital near Aleppo recently when the victims of the incendiary bomb started coming in, and she spent days and nights treating them. She appeared on BBC Newsnight the very day she flew back, and spoke of the way the hospital got hotter and hotter as more injured children arrived, radiating heat from their burns. Many of those children died, including one who was just six years old. The hospital took so in so many that it ran out of burns dressings, cannulas for giving intravenous fluids, antibiotics to stop infection setting in. But there were children who were treated and survived who otherwise would certainly have died. And while politicians fight it out in a revolting global power play, supporting this charity is the only thing I feel I can do that will make any practical difference to people who are suffering in ways that nobody ever should.