Syria: Conflict is keeping civilians trapped in an endless winter

Syria: Conflict is keeping civilians trapped in an endless winter

In late 2010, Ireland was gripped by the ‘big freeze’, a cold snap which wreaked havoc on our daily lives. It was an unusual weather event for the country, and left many people yearning – probably for the first time – for the typical damp Irish winter. Although the ‘big freeze’ came to an end within weeks, it appeared to delay the arrival of spring. By March 2011, snow still dusted the mountains and a bitter chill lingered in the air. The weather was cold but manageable. Life as we knew it was back to normal.

What we did not know, however, was that a huge storm was brewing in another part of the world. That same month, security forces in the southern Syrian city of Daraa fatally shot protestors demanding the release of political prisoners. The deaths sparked violent unrest that spread steadily across the country in the months that followed. The horrors that the people of Syria have suffered in the nine years since that first gun was fired are unimaginable. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Millions of families have been forced to flee. Hundreds of children have been maimed.

Rafik's house in Hamourieh/Eastern Ghouta has been destroyed. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

Today, more than 6.5 million Syrians are living in abject poverty. A third of the population does not have enough food and 15.5 million people have no access to clean, running water. On average, every second person is unemployed, while desperation has forced children into child labour and early marriage. Almost 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance while close to 6 million people are displaced within their own country.

The conflict is also driving the world’s largest refugee crisis, with 5.6 million Syrians having fled to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. As they face into the ninth year of the conflict, those who have lost everything are slowly emerging from another harsh winter of snow, rain and freezing temperatures in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. There, huge numbers of refugees live in ‘informal settlements’ – makeshift wooden structures with little more than plastic sheeting to protect them from the bitter winter winds.

Imm stands at the entrance of her shelter in the Bekaa Valley. Photo: Adrian Hartrick/Oxfam

Yet springtime will not bring any respite because the war in Syria is far from over. A five-hour drive north from the Bekaa Valley, across Syria’s northwest Idlib region, the UN now estimates that a staggering 900,000 people have fled renewed violence since December alone. Today, as shelling and violence intensifies, this number is rapidly approaching 1 million.

Oxfam is working in Syria, where we have reached more than 1.2 million people with aid including clean water, cash, essential clothing items, and support to help make a living and grow nutritious food. While this work is vital, we know that it will not end the suffering of the Syrian people.

The ‘big freeze’ of late 2010 and early 2011 brought dark skies and sub-zero temperatures to Ireland but the bitter chill eventually passed. As the Syrian conflict enters its ninth year, there is no end in sight for millions of people trapped in a seemingly endless winter – devoid of sunlight, hope and any sense of normality – from which, for now at least, there is no escape.

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