"Devastating" impact of explosive weapons on civilians in Syria
Handicap International has been working to support Syrians in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria since 2011. Over the years, the conflict has reached unimaginable levels of brutality. At the centre of this spiral of violence, is the issue of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and its disastrous consequences on civilians. Mélanie Broquet, Handicap International Project Monitoring and Coordination Manager, explains.
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What is the humanitarian situation in Syria after 6 years of fighting?
The situation in Syria is disastrous. The conflict has intensified over the years with an increasing number of stakeholders, and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has become systematic and widespread resulting in an exponential increase in the number of victims.
Since the start of the conflict in 2011, nearly 300,000 people have been killed, and very shortly the number of people injured will pass the one million mark.
Add to the mix the more than 11 million people who have fled, via very complex routes, to other parts of Syria or a neighbouring country, and the picture of the humanitarian situation resulting from the conflict is extremely bleak. The use of explosive weapons is one of the key issues in this conflict.
What impact does this have on civilians?
The impact is devastating: 90% of the victims of explosive weapons are civilians. When used in populated areas, they kill, and cause severe suffering and injuries such as burns, open wounds and fractures etc. They also cause disability and psychological trauma.
However, the impact of this practice does not stop there: the use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes the forced displacement of populations and destroys essential infrastructure such as residential buildings, schools and hospitals.
Furthermore, during these bombing raids, a certain percentage of munitions will not explode on impact, thus posing a threat to the civilian population long after a conflict has ended, making it much more difficult for them to return to their homes once the attack is over.
As an organisation committed to campaigning against antipersonnel landmines and cluster bombs, does Handicap International condemn this practice?
Yes, this is the focus of Handicap International's latest campaign. It is leading an international campaign against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, a practice used in a number of ongoing conflicts, in Iraq and Yemen, for example. We are currently working alongside other NGOs and a group of States committed to drawing up a political statement intended to end this practice. We are calling on all States to join the process and to sign this statement which we hope will be finalised at the end of 2018.
Can you explain the risks relating to explosive remnants of war?
After bombing raids, which in Syria are extremely intense, the target zones are left heavily contaminated with unexploded devices. This contamination poses a threat to the civilian population, even years after the fighting has ended: they are particularly dangerous for displaced people who are living in an unfamiliar environment (an unknown neighbourhood or village etc.) and for families trying to get to their houses when there is a break in the fighting to pick up their things or return to their homes.
Members of these communities often do their own survival clearance by removing these explosive remnants themselves. This is extremely dangerous as these devices and the debris are extremely unstable and their condition varies widely.
In conjunction with our local partners, we conduct awareness-raising sessions on these risks in various neighbourhoods and communities in Syria. These sessions aim to teach people the right reactions. Since January 2013, 400,000 people have benefited from awareness-raising on the risks relating to explosive devices.
Handicap International is also known for its expertise in orthopaedic fitting and rehabilitation. What are the needs in this area?
These needs are immense, and six years after the start of the conflict, we are still in the emergency phase which means we are taking action to save lives. This unimaginably brutal war has caused both psychological and physical trauma, with more than one million people injured, and the number of people amputated who require orthopaedic fitting and rehabilitation care runs to the tens of thousands.
These needs are all the greater given that the health care structures in some areas of the country have been entirely destroyed and the injured therefore receive care at a very late stage. If a person requiring rehabilitation is not treated immediately, their injuries can deteriorate rapidly and these after-effects can cause permanent disabilities.
The trauma is also psychological…
Yes, and this aspect absolutely must be taken into account. The violence of the conflict, in particular the bombing, causes different forms of trauma, with symptoms including disorientation, anxiety, mutism, and depression, which require adapted support over the long term.
We endeavour to provide this through a range of psychological support activities: discussion sessions, individual support or referral to the relevant specialists. It is no exaggeration to say that an entire generation of Syrians has been traumatised by this war of unparalleled violence.
Can humanitarian organisations operate as normal in Syria?
No, the provision of humanitarian aid is regularly hindered in Syria. In the areas being bombed, women, children and older people have no access to the aid they require. The humanitarian organisations need to be able to take action to provide assistance to the civilians who cannot flee the combat zones and are living in highly precarious conditions with no access to basic services, which have mostly been destroyed. International Humanitarian Law requires civilians to be protected during conflicts - what is happening in Syria is unacceptable.