I visited Syria on the eve of the 3rd anniversary of the conflict, two years of suffering ago. At the time, it hardly seemed possible that the situation facing millions of children there could get worse.
But it could. And, tragically, it did.
Three weeks ago, I visited Syria again. And while the situation facing children still threatens the future of an entire generation, the cessation of violence and resumption of talks in Geneva offer the first real hope of peace the Syrian people have had in five years of war.
Everywhere I visited – in Damascus, Homs, Hama and Al-Salameya – people spoke of hope. Hope that there will be peace, hope that peace can be found in more than a diplomatic piece of paper, hope that peace will return in their daily lives. The children I met in their classrooms spoke of their hopes for their futures – as doctors, engineers, teachers.
As I crossed the lines into the encircled neighbourhood of Al Waer, I saw things that I had not seen two years ago – shops open for business, people walking freely, children learning in classrooms above ground instead of huddling in basements for fear of snipers. Even in the shattered old city of Homs, people displaced by the fighting are starting to return.
And there is also hope that another serious threat to the children of Syria – the resurgence of life-threatening childhood diseases due to lack of immunization – has a chance of lessening. Senior government officials in Damascus agreed that we can immediately plan and seek to implement a nationwide immunization programme, together with WHO, the Ministry of Health, and our other partners, most notably, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
But with that hope there were still signs of havoc and harsh evidence of the toll the war has taken on children. Entire neighbourhoods that have been flattened. A former orphanage in Al Waer struck by a mortar attack two years ago that killed eight children – functioning now as a children’s centre.
In Homs, doctors took me into a surgical room where they treated a victim who had just been shot in the face by a sniper. The doctors had only old surgical instruments with which to remove pieces of the patient’s shattered jawbone. The anaesthetic medicine was past its expiration date. They were using an old towel to wipe away the blood.
The doctors, nurses, and especially the father of the victim, expressed their anger – not only at the Government which continues to deny access to surgical and medical supplies to such areas, but also at the United Nations and the whole world. We can’t blame him – because the world has allowed this suffering to go on for five years.
With all those we met, we pledged that UNICEF will continue to do all we can to support Syria, not only in meeting urgent humanitarian needs, but also in its recovery and development.
Indeed, that development is taking place today. For every time we educate a Syrian child, wherever she or he may be, we are helping build Syria’s future.
Over the past five years, UNICEF and our partners have reached more than 10 million people, mostly children, with water, health and nutrition services, education and supportive counselling.
But there are so many more children to reach: Six million inside Syria and more than two million who have fled the violence to neighbouring countries.
That is why today, over 100 humanitarian organizations including UNICEF renewed our appeal for unconditional, sustained humanitarian access by whatever routes necessary to reach all people in need – including by medical workers to treat those who are sick and injured – and support for a nationwide immunization campaign.
These are practical actions that could mean the difference between life and death – and by agreeing to them now, all parties to the conflict can take another step toward peace. Peace for the people of Syria – a peace that the children of Syria so desperately deserve.
Anthony Lake is the Executive Director of UNICEF
Read more about the situation of children in Syria.