Pictures can’t capture it, words can’t convey it, the mind can’t conceive it. The apocalyptic nightmare that has torn Syria apart, reduced its cities to rubble, and left 511,000 dead and millions of its people homeless, traumatised and utterly impoverished, is a humanitarian catastrophe.
More eye-watering than the physical destruction of the country, which has left cities such as Aleppo 70 per cent destroyed, is the prospect of rebuilding the millions of homes, replacing the country’s shattered infrastructure, and creating much needed employment.
Last week I went to Homs, Aleppo and Damascus and saw for myself the sheer scale of destruction. I met many people who are now trying to regain some semblance of normality in their lives, though most remain extremely poor and vulnerable.
George Terzian, a former English teacher in Aleppo told us: “The war stopped here two years ago but the economic situation remains very bad. There were jobs before and people were working. Now, the vast majority are unemployed. At the moment we receive food parcels including sugar, rice, cheese, tomatoes, oil and eggs, and money to buy fuel for heating (£15). Without it, it would be very bad for us. Life would be impossible.”
SCIAF is working with our partners to help more than 44,000 people with emergency aid such as food, clothes, medical care, cash for rent and diesel for heating. We’re also helping families repair their homes.
Mrs Thouraya Masoud lives with her sons and their families and stayed in Homs throughout the war. Her neighbourhood was caught in the crossfire.
She told us: “There was shooting everywhere. We were trapped here for three years with little food. We thought about running away but where would we go?
“The children were registered in school but they couldn’t go for two years. Even now when they hear loud noises they are scared. The war was like a nightmare.
“Our neighbours next door were killed when a mortar hit their house directly. Our house was badly damaged, destroying the windows and the balcony was broken.
“There were holes in the roof, glass everywhere, the electricity wiring was ruined, the walls were cracked, the water tank on the roof was broken. We only had one hour of electricity a day when we were trapped and two hours of water a day.
“Now we are repairing our home with help. We have new windows, tiled the floor, plastered the walls, new doors and rebuilt the balcony. We still have no heater in the apartment and no water. We need more help. We need to seal the roof as the water comes in when it rains.”
Everyone I met is simply glad to be free of the all-consuming violence that plagued their lives. Abd Al Naseeh recently returned to his bombed first floor apartment having been forced to flee for his life when the fighting consumed his neighbourhood.
He told us: “I’m very happy to be back in our home where I’ve spent all my life. I don’t mind the damage, I’m just glad to be home. We are trying to ignore the damage. We hope Homs will recover and all the families too.”
With the cessation of fighting in the vast majority of the country, and despite the appalling atrocities committed by Bashar Al-Assad and others, everyone who has been involved in the conflict, including the UK Government and wider international community, must put their differences to one side and help the millions of innocent people who continue to suffer.
Looking ahead, we need to consider how we can help reconstruct the country’s vital infrastructure and economy, and rebuild people’s homes and livelihoods.
We must also help communities, families and individuals heal their wounds and create the conditions for a peaceful and stable future in the country.
George Homsi is an engineer working with one of our partners in Aleppo who are helping people repair their homes. Despite the huge task ahead, he has confidence in the people’s ability to overcome the challenges they now face.
He said: “How long will the rebuilding of Aleppo take? It depends on the politics and support but it will take at least 10 years. Part of the problem is that we don’t have any young people. We don’t have young men. We have children and old people. Most of the young people are dead, in the military or they have gone overseas.
“But now the fighting has stopped here, life will come back. We have to be strategic and think about how we want the city to be in the future. We can’t stay as we are. We have to take the first steps.”
To donate to SCIAF’s work in Syria and around the world visit www.sciaf.org.uk.
Alistair Dutton is the director of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF).