STORY IN FOCUS. INTERVIEW WITH MOHAMMAD KANFASH, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF DAMAAN HUMANITARIAN ORGANISATION
Q.1 What is Damaan’s mandate, why was it established and when
Damaan Humanitarian Organisation is a Syrian / Dutch public benefit organisation. It is the result of a collective effort by many activists and professionals who share a sense of responsibility & obligation towards their fellow Syrians and Syria. It started as a small group of concerned citizens and in 2016 it was officially registered as an NGO in the Netherlands.
Throughout our work, we strive to foster sustainable development and to respond to the humanitarian needs of Syrians. Having an unapologetic and fervent belief in the Syrians, from the outset, we sought and worked to develop a partnership with people on the ground. We never considered them beneficiaries, but rather masters of their own fate and future as well as partners in an ever-lasting mission to improve the future of the Syrians and to set Syria on the right path.
It is this belief that the Syrians deserve better that has made the mission seek every opportunity and exert all efforts possible to effect positive change in their lives and to help rebuild the country. Our projects have been centered on the provision of medical care, water, food & aid, and education as well as the promotion of self-reliance and dialogue among Syrians.
Q.2 There have been numerous reports about the numbers of those starving in Syria – from siege warfare, airstrikes on aid convoys and the obstruction of aid in refugee camps and recent news on burning of crops. Please can you explain the situation as you see it on the ground and why you think that this starvation may be deliberate
Syria will haunt our conscience forever. It is the most documented conflict in the 21st century, and yet very little has been done to stop the horror that has befallen Syrians on daily basis since 2011.
A report issued in August 2019, stated that in relation to Syria an estimated
“92,000 children under the age of five years are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition, out of which 19,000 girls and boys are at risk of death due to severe acute malnutrition; a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment”
These are not just numbers; these are humans and behind each case, there is a story. Malnutrition and starvation are not byproducts of the conflict. A considerable number of these cases could be attributed to the strategies of attrition that were used predominantly by the Assad regime and to a lesser degree by other armed groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and ISIS. Similar strategies were also employed by the international coalition and its Kurdish allies in Raqqa too.
A ‘starve or kneel strategy’ was mercilessly imposed on many hundreds of thousands of civilians. Until recently, 1.7 million people were under siege. The world watched thousands of them die in military operations, tens of thousands rooted out of their homes and hundreds discriminately arrested and forcibly disappeared.
While there are no areas under siege these days, there is one forgotten tragedy – the Al-Rukban camp, where thousands and thousands of people are left in the midst of the desert, in an area controlled by the US and its allies. As recently as July 20, 2019, the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffery, unapologetically spoke about how the International Coalition was intentionally not providing food to the civilians in the Rukban camp.
Meanwhile, another catastrophe is unfolding before our eyes in Idlib, where millions of people live and are subjected to relentless bombardment and indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian government and its allies. Little aid is coming to the area and there is no attention to what is happening as if the world has chosen to look the other way.
Q.3 Your team was based in Eastern Ghouta during the siege and witnessed the ‘starve or kneel’ tactics, please can you describe the difficulties facing your organisation and others like yours in delivering food aid
The challenges were enormous and numerous and the team in Syria did an extraordinary job handling them.
As of 2013, hundreds of thousands of people were cut from the outside world due to the siege policy. Next to blocking food supplies, other essential commodities such as medical supplies, water, electricity and gas were also cut off, turning people into beneficiaries of various local and international NGOs and charities. This was further compounded by the lack of employment opportunities and resources as well as unforgiving food prices. In the years that followed, the only way possible to secure food, medicine and other necessities was through smuggling and payment of rackets to the regime officials. Many people were killed while attempting to break the siege or to smuggle medical devices for example. The whole area became eventually dependent on smuggling routes for survival. Taxation by both the armed groups and the regime meant that the prices skyrocketed and very few people could afford their meals.
It was in this environment that our first activities started and were limited to helping individual families. Shortly afterwards, we realised that the siege policy was not going to end soon and hence we moved into something more systematic and organised. Our first projects focused on the provision of books, notebooks and stationaries to elementary schools. As the situation deteriorated further, we established our first communal kitchen. By the time we had to evacuate in 2018, our team was operating 3 communal kitchens, 11 clinics, agricultural self-sufficiency projects and water wells.
During the siege years, we delivered around a million individual meals and more than 50,000 people benefited from the services of our medical centers.
These results would not have been possible without the sacrifices of the people on the ground. One example of such sacrifice is Ussama, one Damaan’s nurses, who was killed while trying to help people.
Now, after displacement, our team has re-established its operation in Idlib. Our main challenge, next to the physical security, is funding. As of October 2019, more than 300,000 people have been displaced due to the attacks by the Syrian government and its allies. These numbers are added to other hundreds of thousands that live in camps under open skies under excruciating and unbearable conditions.
Q.4 With a multitude of other grave violations and international crimes occurring against Syrian civilians why should starvation crimes be highlighted
It is the uniquely negative consequences and everlasting impact that we are most concerned about.
Starvation will affect the future of many children and civilians that were subjected to this crime. Their plight is not over now that the siege has ended. We should consider the medical and psychological impact this might leave.
This crime is so heinous that its negative impact will not only be limited to the physical and psychological health of the survivors, but will also impact the social cohesion of the society.
Q.5 What do Syrian’s want in terms of accountability?
Without accountability and justice any future settlement will not hold under the weight of the grievances of the hundreds of thousands of people and the country might slide back to violence. Additionally, accountability and justice are required so Syrians can gain their confidence in the state and its institutions, develop a sense of safety and for the country to return to normalcy, if ever possible.
Having said that, we are not delusional about the inextricable political situation in Syria and we do understand that justice may not be served or fully achieved. However, should the criminal justice not be possible, the state and politicians should strive to other forms such as political and social / restitutive justice as well as distributive reparations.
We welcome all effort to hold perpetrators of starvation-related crimes accountable and we aspire for a day when the Syrian judicial system can the take the lead in this matter.
It is worth mentioning that we vehemently oppose the use of sanctions against the Syrian state in pursuit of justice. Sanctions are compounding the dire situation of hundreds of thousands of people and in our pursuit of justice for the victims, we should be careful not to create new suffering.