Assisting Syrian War Victims

Today representatives of Syrian civil society released the “Syrian Transition Roadmap.”This 238-page document presents plans for constitutional, judicial, political, and security sector reforms, and transitional justice goals, including prosecutions for crimes and compensation to victims. The roadmap rightly advocates for compensation both moral (apologies and memorials) and physical (money or material goods) for harm suffered by Syrians. But the opposition and international community should commit to developing and funding a comprehensive Victims Assistance Program to help Syrian war victims rehabilitate their lives.

Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the peaceful protests against the rule of Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. Over 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced and over 1.6 million are refugees in neighboring countries. Many survivors are disabled from injuries sustained from rockets, mortars, artillery, and cluster bombs. Others have survived torture and sexual violence and coping with the physical and psychological trauma of the harm. Families are struggling to survive with the loss of breadwinners and without homes.

Recognizing and easing the suffering of civilians should be a key priority in any plans for Syria’s future. My organization interviewed Syrians in 2012 and 2013 from all backgrounds both in Syria and in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, who described the harm they sufferedand the types of assistance they need to rebuild their lives. Syrians wanted job training, compensation to cope with their losses, and to reconstruct their homes and businesses. Syrians will also need assistance for the physical and psychological harm they have suffered.

Ilyad, a 30-year-old painter from Aleppo was in front of his house when mortar shelling landed near him in April 2013. The shrapnel hit his face, requiring surgery. “Look at me,” he said. “There are thousands of us who will be forever maimed. We will be a constant reminder of the horrors of this war. But I have been given a chance to live and if the fighting stops I want my life back. It will never be the same, but I want to work and help my community.”

Disabled Syrians and widows told me they needed job training. Ahmed, whose leg was amputated because of shrapnel injuries, said to me, “I don’t want to rely on government support forever in a new Syria. Show me what kind of work I can do with only one leg and I will do it.”

Recent widows wanted skills training programs to help them provide for their families. Ayesha said, “Its hard for me to imagine the future. I have lost so much–my husband, my house, my son, but I have two daughters who need to be cared for. In a new Syria I want to learn a trade so I can earn an income to help my family with dignity.”

Some Syrians wanted financial assistance for the losses they have suffered. Fatima lost her leg when a rocket hit her house in Idlib governorate in December 2012. “I will never forget that day. It was 10:00 a.m., I heard jet fighters in the sky. I rushed to get my 1-year-old son and was holding him when the roof started crumbling. A rocket had hit my house. I fainted. A rescue worker pulled my son and me out. My son has lost his hearing. My house is gone, I can no longer use my leg, but we survived. It was a miracle.” When asked what kind of assistance she wanted she replied, “We have suffered a lot. If can get some compensation for our losses so we have a home and get a chance to live with dignity then it will help us.”

Farmers from Aleppo and Idlib governorates said that they needed fields cleared of unexploded ordnance and financial assistance to start harvesting. “We are farmers but had to leave our village because of the fighting. I want to return to my family home and land, but don’t know whether I can harvest crops if bombs are in the field,” said Abbas. Another farmer said, “I grow olives, but I have lost everything: my house, my farm, my savings and [I am] now living in a tent. If a new government comes then they need to help us reclaim our lands and assist us so we can start farming and earning for our families again.”

Syrians will also need assistance from physical and psychological harm both short and long-term medical care. Arwa related how her daughter Misran, 12, developed speech problems after her father was killed in 2012. Misran was also shot by sniper firing in March 2013 and is paralyzed from the waist below. Mohammad, a Syrian doctor, told the Center, “The physical and psychological scars of this war will haunt Syrians for decades. A lot of help will be needed to mend the limbs, provide rehabilitation, and psychological counseling so that Syria can be a functional society again.”

Syrian voices reflect not only their harrowing tales of survival during the armed conflict, but also resilience and the desire for them to rebuild their lives. Listening to what they want is an important first step and any roadmap for the future must acknowledge civilian suffering and recognize their losses.

Given the escalating conflict with no end in sight, thinking about assisting civilians after the conflict is a challenge. But planning to assist those harmed should start now. All who have suffered must be recognized and their needs addressed in order for Syria to rebuild. The Syrian opposition and the international community should commit to planning and funding to help war victims post-conflict. A comprehensive Victims Assistance Program for Syria needs to be created to help Syrians affected by the conflict rebuild their lives. All Syrian conflict victims should be recognized and their needs and wants for assistance post harm should be reflected in the assistance. Beneficiaries of the assistance program should include those suffering personal losses due to the conflict.

Specifically the Syrian opposition and the international community should take the following steps:

• Plan a victim assistance program to include assistance for: medical and psychosocial services, rebuilding of homes destroyed during the conflict, job or vocational training for a sustainable livelihood — including to widows and the disabled — material or financial assistance to restart businesses and farming, and educational scholarships for orphan children or who have lost breadwinners in their families.

• Given the scale of devastation and losses, financial assistance should be provided to the next of kin of the dead, disappeared, internally displaced and returning refugees to get them started on rebuilding their lives with dignity.

• Long-term assistance for those who were injured and became disabled during the conflict warrants special attention. Assistance should include prosthetics for amputees and job training for the disabled.

• A separate community infrastructure program should focus on rebuilding schools, hospitals, and roads.

• A comprehensive plan for removing unexploded ordnance from fields, villages, and cities should also be part of the transition roadmap and should include capacity for training Syrians to de-mine and safely dispose of munitions.

Syria will only be as strong as its people are. The harm and losses they suffered need to be dignified with comprehensive and long-term help to knit together Syrian society and Syria itself.


The Huffington Post