Maher's story - a boy trapped in the siege of Daraya
The following is a first-hand account with an 11 year old resident of Daraya in Syria. Daraya has been under siege for the past year by the Syrian government.
“My name is Maher (11). I am from besieged Daraya. I have been here under bombardment with my Mom and three siblings for a whole year. We forgot the taste of bread. We are hungry and we are freezing. We miss having electricity and we miss many things in our house.
My hand was amputated. I was playing near the city’s playground when a MiG jet fighter bombed the area. I heard people calling the bombs cluster bombs. I held one of them in my hand. I did not know it had not exploded yet. It went off in my hand and ever since that day I was left with only one hand.
I use my hand to ride my bike with my younger siblings Walaa (1.5) and Hamza (5). We enjoy a short trip to bring water to Mom. We laugh all the way.
In the future, I hope I can become a doctor. I want to help the sick, the injured and the wounded. I wish this siege would end, and the war would end in my country, so that I could go back to my school, and see my friends who had to leave the city.”
The testimony received from Maher is not exceptional. Many of Syria’s children are facing their third winter having to deal with an acute lack of food, of drinkable water and of adequate shelter – not to mention the constant all-encompassing risk of serious physical harm. The Syrian government’s collective punishment of entire civilian areas, including indiscriminate bombings and deliberate starvation by denying aid access, is a tactic designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise those seen as a threat to the regimes power.
It is something the Syrian authorities have been doing in one form or another since thousands of people peacefully protested against state corruption and repression way back in March 2011. And as I’ve pointed out before, there are still many Syrians standing up for their rights and protesting in the true spirit of defiance – we should have solidarity with those peacefully demanding their rights.
For instance, members of the Local Council of Daraya City started a campaign called “Chain of Hope” on 27 October to highlight the plight of those suffering due to the siege. A leading member of the council told me the campaign will last “as long as the people of Daraya are suffering and the people leading the campaign are still alive”.
Another member of the local Council of Daraya, Muhammad Shihadeh, said "We are working against all odds to spread our word to the world. The children of Daraya are suffering and they need your help". The activists working on this campaign say "Chain of Hope people attempt to bring their voice to the world that failed to help them, and to demand the opening of humanitarian corridors to provide and supply them with the necessary requirements for their lives. We hope to make the children’s voices heard where the voice of the weapons is much higher than our voice."
It's clear we need to see a massive influx of humanitarian aid and aid workers into Syria, crossing borders and conflict lines, safely and effectively with minimum blockages and guarantees of safe passage from all parties to the conflict. Time is not on the side of those who are besieged and bombed and it is clear the Syrian government has failed in its responsibility to protect Syrian civilians. The UN and international NGOs, whilst doing vital humanitarian work, recognize that it is not nearly enough. The UN itself estimates that humanitarian actors are unable to assist an estimated 2.5 million people trapped in hard-to reach and besieged areas, many of which have not been reached for almost a year.
The Syrian authorities have an obligation to allow unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief and to grant freedom of movement for authorized humanitarian personnel. Although states are entitled to regulate the entry of humanitarian assistance, they must not arbitrarily withhold consent for genuine relief operations. Humanitarian agencies hoped that the UN Security Council’s Presidential Statement of 2 October 2013, might lead to an improvement in access - they have been disappointed - but not as much as ordinary Syrians. That UN statement urged the Syrian authorities to take immediate steps to facilitate the expansion of humanitarian relief operations, “including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighbouring countries in accordance with the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance.” And the statement condemned the denial of humanitarian access, and recalled that “arbitrarily depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supply and access, can constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.”
But so far, the Syrian government has continued to make it incredibly difficult for relief to get in and around Syria. And its supporters, including Russia, have been callously watching as this catastrophe escalates. Many armed groups have also made the work of humanitarians difficult and dangerous.
This Security Council statement, which was agreed by Russia and other members of the Security Council, also restates binding rules of international humanitarian law. Flagrant violations of many of these rules are war crimes. It’s high time that states take seriously their obligations to ensure respect for these rules.
As for Russia, Iran and other allies of the Syrian government, clearly they need to use their influence much more to pressure President Assad’s government to stop committing crimes under international law and give unhindered access to humanitarian organisations. States with influence over armed groups must also press them to end their abuses and stop hindering humanitarian access. The aftermath of the 21 August chemical weapons attack shows what can be accomplished when Russia (and Iran) exert pressure on the Syrian government. The plight of Syria’s civilian population is just as serious a concern as the use of chemical weapons and similarly requires a concerted, coordinated effort by all international actors. As some Syrian activists have said, where is the red line against a deliberate starvation campaign?
Meanwhile, for Maher and his siblings and for many ordinary Syrians, the interminable diplomatic games seem irrelevant and obscene. Many Syrians would like UN agencies to enter Syria regardless of agreement at the Security Council, regardless of the objections and obstruction of the Syrian government and of some armed groups. They cannot understand why they appear to have been abandoned. Balance must be restorted to the international community’s agenda on Syria. Priority must be given to concrete actions which will protect civilians, treat the sick and wounded, feed the hungry and shelter the displaced. And accountability for mass crimes under international law must also be placed at the top of the international agenda. It’s time to prioritise children like Maher, so that he can go back to school as soon as possible and work hard toward one day becoming the doctor he wishes to be.
Kristyan Benedict is on Twitter as @KreaseChan
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.