Critics of the principle of neutrality in humanitarian action sometimesmake an unfortunate link between neutrality and a position of passivity,an uncritical or bland stance designed to appease rather than confront.
Those critics should read the feature article about the volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent by New York Times reporter Anne Barnard.
Anne Barnard ’s feature article in the 3 June 2013 New York Times follows a cadre of volunteers in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s Damascus branch through their daily rounds. In a world harshly divided along partisan lines, neutrality and impartiality serve as the fuel for their round-the-clock rescue work.
“Their mission, the volunteers said, is to aid those in need, no matter what their political affiliation,’’ she writes. “In Syria’s polarized conflict, that amounts to a radical stance. Across the country volunteers have paid a heavy price.”
Even the act of going to work is a dangerous choice. Consider the tragic death of Abdo Darwish, a driver with the Al-Hassakeh branch who was shot on his way to work on 14 May. Darwish was wearing his Red Crescent uniform, clearly indicating his affiliation with the Movement, when he was shot by snipers.
With violence intensifying throughout the country, attacks against health-care workers and relief personnel have been on the rise. The conflict in Syria has now claimed the lives of at least 20 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers. The National Society’s property (including cars and premises clearly displaying its emblem) has also come under fire. The shelling of the Red Crescent branch in Homs, on 15 May, is one example.
In response, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the ICRC and the IFRC have repeatedly called on warring parties to respect volunteers, all other personnel affiliated with the Movement, and the emblems displayed on their premises, vehicles and clothing.
In a conflict that has already claimed more than 93,000 lives, according to a United Nations estimate in July, simple acts of everyday life can be extremely dangerous. For those who routinely take action to save others, the danger is even greater. “It’s simple. You have to go outside to do your shift,” says Raed Altawil, a 19-year veteran volunteer and emergency services coordinator from the Damascus branch.
In addition to bullets and bombs, another danger is arbitrary arrest. Numerous volunteers have been detained while in the course of their humanitarian work, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Altawil himself was arrested in November 2012 and spent 69 days in a detention facility, during which time he says he was ill-treated and lost a significant amount of weight.
Meanwhile, several similar cases have also attracted the attention of human rights groups and the media. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s president Abdul Rahman Attar, has spoken of the killings and detention of volunteers regularly during visits with foreign media, donors and dignitaries.
These dangers are the reason 36-year-old Altawil is advocating within the Movement to improve systems for tracking, supporting, protecting and advocating for volunteers and their families who are detained or are working in conflict situations.
“The volunteers are at the front lines because they are the locals and because of that they know how to operate and help the people,’’ Altawil says. “But because they are local they are in greater danger. [The warring parties] know if they kill a local, or arrest a local, there will not be as big a consequence.’’
Fortunately, he says, the solid capacity and excellent reputation of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent emergency teams allow their services to keep running even after the loss or detention of a colleague. “We have a good reputation. If people see a Red Crescent volunteer, they know the volunteer will help you.”
Nearly two years of war have solidified the volunteers’ commitment to the Fundamental Principles, he says, and towards making the National Society an effective tool for helping Syria’s most vulnerable people. What about the dangers? “It’s the price for helping people,” he says. “This is something we believe in. Sure it is safer to stay at home and close the door.”
“But you see the result of helping the people,” he adds. “You see that if you set up a good programme, if you give aid to people, you see that you really are allowing people to live. In some areas in Syria that’s really true because there is no medicine, in fact nothing at all. They really need the help that you provide.”
Hamza Sabano, 20, an emergency aid worker for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, surveys the scene of a suicide bombing in central Damascus in April 2013.
Photo: ©Andrea Bruce/NOOR
Syrian Arab Red Crescent emergency workers celebrate the release of fellow workers who were detained by Syrian security forces. Photo: ©Andrea Bruce/NOOR