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The sounds of neighbors being ravaged in Syria

by Cesar Chelala

There is not much information about the Syrian Wars waged between the Seleucid Empire and the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt between 274 B.C. and 168 B.C.

What is known is that the wars so drained the infrastructure and manpower of both that their destruction and conquest by Rome and Parthia followed.

Today, two years after it started, the conflict in Syria threatens to cause not only tremendous loss of life but also destruction of property and the country’s social fabric.

According to United Nations figures, the conflict has caused over 70,000 deaths, of which about half are estimated to be civilians, many of them women and children. The impact of the conflict, however, goes beyond those killed and maimed. It is estimated that over 1 million Syrians have left their country and become refugees in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and, increasingly, North Africa, placing a heavy burden on those countries’ health and social services. In addition, an estimated 2 million Syrians have been displaced within their own country.

How can one measure the impact of those displacements on families, particularly children? How to assess the loss of property, work, education, contacts with family and neighbors? Some of it can be glimpsed by statements from survivors collected by human rights organizations. A remarkable assessment has been conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the last one in a report released in January titled “Syria: A Regional Crisis.”

The situation for refugee women and girls is particularly upsetting. Women refugees surveyed by the IRC cite rape as the main reason they fled their homes.

Huge numbers of women and girls have abandoned their homes, and there is a remarkable lack of medical and counseling services for survivors to help them recover in their new countries. In addition, they face unsafe conditions in the refugee camps and domestic violence.

George Rupp, IRC president and CEO, stated: “Syria is tearing itself apart. Doctors are targeted because they treat the injured. Women and girls are raped and brutalized, inflicting maximum damage on their families. Homes, schools and hospitals are destroyed. The entire international community will need to dig deep to help put back together what is being shredded into pieces.”

I am particularly disheartened by testimony reported in the HRW report from a woman from Homs. She heard security forces and shabiha militias (paramilitary forces of men dressed in civilian clothes that support the Ba’ath Party) rape her neighbors while she hid in her apartment. “I could hear one of the girls fighting with one of the men. … She pushed him aside and he shot her in the head.”

The woman then said three girls, the youngest age 12, were then raped. When the men left, the woman went next door to her neighbors. “The scene inside was unreal. The 12-year-old was lying on the ground, blood to her knee. … More than one person had raped the 12-year-old. …She was torn the length of a forefinger. I will never go back there. It comes to me. I see it in my dreams and I just cry.”

A new report from the aid agency Save the Children states that more than 2 million Syrian children face disease, malnutrition and severe trauma as a result of the conflict.

These are human beings behaving at the most cruel, at the basest possible level. And the conflict doesn’t give any indication when it will end, but rather that it will extend to neighboring countries.

As stated in the report, “A humanitarian catastrophe is deepening by the day and is likely to continue long after the civil war ends. … An end to the civil war will not necessarily end sectarian violence; indeed the violence could well increase. Recovery, reconciliation and political transition will be fraught with challenges and could take years.”

I shudder to think that this is the country of some of my ancestors, the country I dreamed of visiting one day and meeting relatives still living there.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a writer on human rights issues and a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.