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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

Field diary: Impressions from the battered war zone of Homs, Syrian Arab Republic

A boy stands, bundled in winter clothing, in Za’atari, a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Winter has fallen on the region, and those refugees who have made their way back to the Syrian Arab Republic are in desperate need of winter clothing.

UNICEF Emergency Specialist Mark Choonoo was recently in Homs. He describes the situation there and the impact the conflict has wreaked on children and families.

By Mark Choonoo

HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic, 15 January 2013 – Homs has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic’s 22-month conflict, with hundreds of thousands of residents displaced.

While some parts of the city have been untouched by conflict and seemingly carry on as normal, other areas exhibit the unmistakable signs of intense battles – buildings scarred with bullet holes and shell holes, blown-out windows, rubble. From what I have seen in the suburb of Baba Amr, I would estimate that as many as two thirds of the buildings have been damaged, while others have collapsed completely.

Yet, there are signs of life, even here in this battered war zone. Baba Amr is now relatively calm, with some families making their way back, trying to rebuild their lives. One still hears the sound of explosions and gunfire in the distance.

The cold winter weather is adding to the misery. It’s so bitterly cold, with overnight temperatures dropping to below 0⁰ Celsius. Many children I saw were wearing only light clothes and sandals, or socks, without shoes. All of the children I talked to complained about the cold. Many expressed sadness about friends who had gone away and not returned. But – despite it all, they seemed happy to be home.

Many families are living in extremely basic conditions, using plastic sheeting to cover broken windows and doors, sleeping on bare concrete floors or thin mattresses. There is very little heating and a lack of diesel fuel, which is urgently needed for heating. People are trying to make the best of the conditions, but just imagine how cold it must be, especially at night.

Other families take refuge in collective shelters, some of which are being supported by local business people.

Although water was functioning in the areas I went to, electricity seems to come only in short spurts. One butcher shop I saw had no electricity for freezers, so animals were slaughtered daily, their carcasses hung in the frigid cold outside the shop.

I visited a local health centre that has been destroyed and is no longer in use. This clinic is but one example of how the destruction of basic community facilities is creating a major gap for returnees, particularly those with chronic illnesses and children who need access to healthcare. There is also a shortage of medical supplies, and many health staff have left the area, leaving a vacuum of qualified personnel.

The cold winter weather coupled with poor shelter will only contribute to an increase in winter illnesses, especially among children, in Homs.

Although some schools have been damaged, many continue to run as normal. I visited a school that is still functioning and talked to a teacher who has about 50 students in her class.

The most urgent needs in Homs relate to responding to the harsh winter in the Syrian Arab Republic. With four million people across the country affected, close to half of them children, there is a massive need for humanitarian supplies to make sure they are warm and safe. They urgently need shoes and winter clothes.

UNICEF and other United Nations agencies have provided assistance to the area through a partner organization. While I was writing these lines, new emergency supplies reached Homs, including 5,000 quilts, 1,400 blankets and 2,000 family hygiene kits. UNICEF has also recently provided high-energy biscuits for 6,400 children in Homs and supported safe learning spaces to allow children to continue their education.



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