UNICEF’s Mark Choonoo gives a personal account of the rewards and challenges of working in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo
Aleppo, Syria – 11 November 2014 – In Aleppo this morning, I watch the falling leaves and feel the fast falling temperatures as winter speeds through this divided city. The coming weeks will be difficult for children here, especially those living in unfinished or damaged buildings.
This is not the Aleppo that that was meant to be for the children of this city. I have met girls who have not been to school for more than 2 years because their parents are afraid of letting them leave home, and boys as young as 7 and 8 who cuddle together as they seek a warmer spot on the tiled floors of closed shop doorways.
I have been here in Aleppo for the past 4 months, coordinating UNICEF’s emergency response as part of a 14 person- strong team. I live in the western part of the city, which has a mix of residents and people displaced by the fighting elsewhere. This small piece of the largest city in Syria is now home to nearly 60% of the city’s former population. The eastern part of the city, where I hope to visit once it is safe enough to do so, is significantly damaged and holds approximately 10% of the total former population of the city.
We live with limited access to electricity, water and internet. But unlike many parents here, I don’t have to face my children at the end of the day, or watch them freeze without hot dinner on the table.
Even getting such a basic essential as clean water is a real challenge. The water source and main water pumping station are in the hands of different militias. Things change so regularly and unpredictably that you can’t be sure who will be in charge from one day to the next.
Recently, my UNICEF colleagues and I managed to work with a national partner to negotiate cross line access and carry out major repairs to the city’s water system. This improved the functioning of the system and increased water access to two million residents. I feel the difference where I live and I hear the messages coming from the field monitors that water seems to be flowing a little better. We discovered that the damage had been caused by military action of some kind. It’s unfair for the families when these services become “collateral damage” due to the conflict.
I witness daily how children and their families have to face complex controls on their movements as they pass through areas policed by militia groups. The innocent population is targeted from all sides. Where does one live when most of the houses are damaged or are in areas of active warfare? There is just not enough space for people to make a home in any part of this city.
To respond to the needs of children in Eastern Aleppo, UNICEF is collaborating with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and the Aleppo People’s Initiative. The trained volunteers of these organisations and their fearless leadership is admirable and it gives the UN access to rural Aleppo governorate and the eastern part of the city.
UNICEF has used these organisations to distribute hygiene kits for families and babies, along with blankets, soap, jerry cans, and high energy biscuits for children. We estimate more than 15,000 children were assisted in this way over these last months.
More significantly UNICEF also distributed six full Health Kits to several health centres in rural Aleppo. Each of these kits will help address the medical needs of at least 10,000 persons for the next three months. To help some of Aleppo’s most vulnerable children get some normalcy back in their lives, UNICEF will also set up tents with recreation kits in six areas of western Aleppo governorate. All this is in addition to the support UNICEF is providing to children in the western part of the city that we can access immediately.
As humanitarian actors, we do our utmost to deliver assistance fairly, and include all children whichever side of the conflict they are on. Ensuring this important principle is central for all UNICEF’s work in Aleppo, but has not come without challenge. There is no single body or institution with whom to negotiate access across opposition-held check points in these areas. This makes access precarious. What is agreed today may change within hours.
Additionally, much as I may want to cross the lines and speak to children in all part of the governorate, I have first to negotiate approval from the government. If they approve, I must still get the UN’s own clearance to send me across in a way that is safe and will not get me kidnapped.
In this highly complex and long drawn out conflict, humanitarian actions have become unpredictable and difficult. This has significantly increased the vulnerability of children in areas where we as UNICEF are most needed. Even so, I am convinced we are making a real difference to children’s lives in this battered and war-torn city.