January 19, 2013

Syria - The outrageous failure of us all

The war in Syria has raged now for what seems ages. We have seen Homs burn and Baba Amr get shelled and Aleppo go down, we have witnessed – if we cared or dared to look – horrific crimes against humanity, against humans – children, women, men. We have seen people vanish who were close to our hearts, lingering in some prisons now we cannot access. We fear for their lives every day – or for all we know for people that are no longer alive. One day we will learn perhaps in bitter truth if our clinging to the hope they might live was a folly – or the undying justified loyalty we feel we cannot let end just because the world goes under.

As the atrocities continued, we shouted and screamed, we pleaded and protested, we urged the world leaders to listen, to act, to intervene and stop the killing. We tried to push them to action by calling out the number of the dead – 6.0123 – 8.689 – 10.413. When we reached 12.000, we knew something would stop this madness. It just couldn't go on any longer. We even braved those who, as always to be expected, pointed out, that this number might just be too high, exaggerated, made up perhaps only to serve a political purpose.

A little later, just two weeks ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published her report and we learned: while we spoke of 12.000 for the world to take note, more than 40.000 had in fact been butchered, with now more than 60.000 dead.

60.000 dead. That means 48.000 humans were killed while we still clung to hope and pleaded to the world to make this end. 48.000 shot, burnt, torn to pieces, while we discussed, what could be done. The time span was merely a few weeks. But to the victims, that time span full with horrors was an eternity.

Now we fall silent. The killing goes on. The shelling continues. Bombs rain down on innocent students in universities or unarmed civilians waiting in queues to get bread. Body parts litter the streets, horrific videos show us the bloodbaths we cannot stop with our calling. We have learned that Russia and Iran will never allow this to end, as long as they must fear that a precedent will be set for dictators to fall when they turn against their own people. So Russian warships have entered the Mediterranean and the lunatic killer that calls himself president feels he is strong and gives orders for more of his people to be murdered. We look away. For we cannot take it anymore. Not the blood. Not the screams. Not our own helplessness, our futile attempts to stop this. We have done, what we could, we know, and we could do nothing. It just goes on and on and on. We are just fools with empty hands.

Are we truly?

These days, in bitter cold Lebanon in the Bekaa valley, a slim Hollywood actress turns to us and says: A tragedy is unfolding, and we – and she means us – do not do enough to stop it. She doesn't mean the killing, we cannot halt, nor the blood of the innocent that spills without us being able to prevent it. She speaks of those who managed to flee the hell of Syria, who left all their belongings behind, travelling by night over unmarked paths and snow covered mountains, whole families, old men, women, children, with hardly enough clothes to sustain in the freezing cold. When they have survived the shelling and shooting that is happening across the border and they finally arrive in the refugee camps of the international community, they fall down with exhaustion. But they are alive. Not shot. Not burnt. Not eradicated, but alive, with the only yearning in their heart to make it.

That's where we come in. But we don't. We watch from afar with the empty hands we think we have, our shoulders pulled down in sorrow and pain after the horrors we witnessed – while others endured them – and think that we have learned that nothing can be done. Not by us at least, for haven't we tried it all? We have, truly, we really did try it all to stop the killing. And because we did not manage to stop the killing – we now believe we cannot help the living. How wrong can we get?

Refugee camp for Syrians in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon

Crushing hopelessness

The refugee camps, comprised of tents and make-shift housings, are icy cold. The snow is everywhere and the wind is fierce. There are no beds to sleep in, just the frozen floor and a blanket. The refugees lack warm clothing, the children are without coats and shoes. The situation is critical for each and everyone who made it to here and has the yearning to live. Thousands are holding out in the brutal cold of the valley, only few find shelter with Lebanese families, of which some open their tiniest lodgings to help. But we, in the shelters of our lives, imagine ourselves to be with empty hands.

Mia Farrow, who has travelled from New York via Beirut into the horror of Syria's refugee reality, sits on a cold floor in a small room and listens, as she listens a lot during these days she is spending there as Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF. The people, so desperate to make someone hear their cries, pour out their hearts, tell stories of unbearable tragedies back where they came from and tell of their devastation in this situation that allows for no dignity. "They are grieving the loss of beloved family members and friends killed in the ceaseless violence. They are traumatised. Again and again they told me how they long for the fighting to end. They just want to go home. Home is Syria - not this heap of icy mud with its crushing hopelessness", she says.

A heap of icy mud? But isn't this a refugee camp of the international community? Are not UNICEF, the UNHCR and partners doing everything possible to ensure decent, dignified living conditions? Are we not all comforted to know that those that have made it out of the hell of Syria are now in the safety of the hands of international aid organisations under surveillance of the United Nations, the international community? What then could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as Farrow points out, for the sheer numbers of refugees and the limited resources create a human catastrophe just after the catastrophe the refugees barely survived. Under our eyes, with our consent. Because if we don't take note that this tragedy is unfolding, we are to blame and not Assad. To us that is new.

The empathy of Hanna

More than 200.000 civilians have fled Syria to save their bare lives. Almost 75% of them are women and children, vulnerable and in danger of diseases in a hostile, muddy environment, unable to cope with the pouring rain and falling snow. The humanitarian workers and aid organisations are doing their best, but there seems to be too little of everything. And for supplies it needs money, but money is scarce. "UNICEF and partners are working around the clock to help the refugees survive but they are alarmingly overstretched and underfunded," says Farrow, and the worries are written across her face. "A lot of help has to come fast, or I just don't know how people are going to make it."

Fact is, under the Regional Response Plan issued in December 2012, US$35 million are at least needed, of which less than one third is currently funded. The United Nations’ US$1.5 billion appeal for the Syrian Arab Republic issued in December 2012 has produced only a minimal response from the members. And a new fierce snow storm at the camp site is expected this coming week. The world is failing. And we are the world.

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow visiting Syrian refugees

In the midst of this tragedy, hearts open up of those who themselves barely have enough to share, as the actress recounts:
»A short drive from the tented community, I visited an unfinished cement house belonging to a Lebanese family - Hanna, her husband, a grocer, and their three children. They had welcomed five Syrian families into their two bedroom home – sharing all they have for the past year with now a total of 45 people.

“My husband was killed in Homs,” an old woman told me as tears streamed down her face.
Never in my life did I imagine we would be with nothing. We were in the street here, with nowhere to go. Hanna lifted me up during my darkest days.” Hanna smiled but brushed off the compliment. "It was just my responsibility as a human being to take them in. Even if they are not my actual family, I feel they are family,” she said.

We were all seated on the floor. You could see people’s breath when they spoke and despite my warm coat, I was shaking from the cold. 

I left that house as inspired as I have ever been. If only the rest of us, as an international ‘community’ could demonstrate a fraction of Hanna’s empathy and generosity – what a very different world it would be.«

Then why isn't it a different world? What is stopping us?

If the international community – that is us, that is you, that is me – can spend billions of dollars on wars, why can the international community not spend millions on saving those, who survived a war?

If those that try to help have to battle with underfunding, we are to blame. We all, no exceptions. We are failing outrageously, if we continue to be timid.

We can turn to our governments and demand explanations why humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees is chronically underfunded. Yes, I know money is scarce everywhere these days. And yet – if we cannot stop the tragedy of the war waged by Syria's president against his people, we at least must stop the tragedy we witness in the refugee camps. Push your government to give more. Call your Senator, Congressman, Member of Parliament, whoever holds responsibility. Push for the funding to go up, so people can live. And if they tell you that there is no money left to spend – remind them of the enormous sums they would easily spend without flinching an eye if a military intervention in Syria would be decided. The millions and billions for armies and navy and air force to be deployed would pour out in streams without anyone asking questions. So a silly million cannot be found extra to fund those who survived? Don't let them lie.

But it's not only them, we must turn to, not only our governments the world over we must push and push hard. It is us too.

How can we be so stupid to think we are empty handed? We all have pockets we can turn upside down, even if richness is not our luck. It does not have to be much, a cent, a penny, a dime. If one million people would give only one dollar, can you imagine how many shoes that would be for freezing children in the Bekaa valley, how many jackets for their cold mothers, how many blankets to fathers and sons?

Children bearing the cold in tented refugee camps for Syrians

We are not with empty hands – they are! The refugees who have nothing but their traumatised life. The humanitarian workers who want to help and are helpless against the underfunding and lack of empathy. It is they, who are empty handed, not us. And they are, because we do not understand that we can stop the killing after all.

We can reach them – Assad can't

If we really burn for saving the lives of Syrian people, what better chance do we have than this?

No, we cannot stop the killing within Syria. But we can prevent Syrians being killed by the horrid conditions outside. And while we thought that we held no powers, with connecting the dots we must finally realise – saving those in the refugee camps is something we can do. And it is the only lifesaving that Bashar al-Assad and his killers will never be able to stop. We can stop the killing. He cannot stop us. If only we truly want to, we can lift up our shoulders back to where they belong and act. For in the light of unbearable human tragedies in Syria we have fallen silent and forgotten the powers we hold after all.

Donate a dollar, a euro, a pound, that is all it needs. And I mean it. It does not have to be much, but DO it. And do it now. If we all give a dollar, a euro, a pound, millions will come together to save those who made it out from Syria's hell.

There is something to be won for us all. For with every Syrian who survives the bitter cold of the refugee camps, the dictator is losing his vicious war against his people. He cannot reach them anymore. But we can. That is our triumph. And it will be the downfall of his inhumanity in the end.


To donate to UNICEF, read the report on Mia Farrow's visit to the refugee camps in Lebanon. Beside it you will find a red 'Donate' button. Click on it, choose your country, and give whatever you can give. And if it is only one dollar, one euro, one pound or whatever your currency may be – ANY amount can help.

Make this your motto: Better give one than give none.


Pictures taken courtesy of UNICEF from the video diary:

Mia Farrow: "Let's be a community"


  1. Jon, you are absolutely right. I have been sitting ashamed at my helplessness, barely managing to squeak out an "I'm sorry" to Syrians who have lost tens of family members.
    But we can do something to help the dear ones in refugee camps. We can.

  2. Thanks Jon for moving and true report of the tragedy that is going on before us. The sadness and pain from the reading is so overwhelming that we often do nothing to counter it. The reality is, we can look at the other side, but the tragedy continues, AA