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In Syria, Not Just Bullets And Bombs Harming Children


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. The standoff in Ukraine may be a central concern of world leaders right now, but it is not the only one. This weekend will mark three years since the protests against the Syrian regime began. That conflict has now ballooned into a full-blown civil war and a devastating humanitarian crisis along with it. And as the fourth year of the crisis begins, the global nonprofit group Save the Children is trying to call attention to the plight of Syria's children.

More than 10,000 children are estimated to have died in the conflict, according to the group, more than a million are now refugees. But even the children who are not displaced are struggling from an inability to access even rudimentary care, like vaccinations. Save the Children's new report about Syrian children is titled "A Devastating Toll." And Michael Klosson, vice president of Policy and Humanitarian Response for that group is with us now to tell us more in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL KLOSSON: Thanks for covering this important story. It's important for American's to hear it.

MARTIN: Well, Michael, you know, it can't be surprising to anybody that a war zone is a dangerous place for kids, but is there something that you think this report reveals that's particularly surprising or particularly important for the world community to know?

KLOSSON: Well, I think what we're trying to do is - so much of the Syria story is about geopolitics, it's about chemical weapons, and we're trying to bring home the human suffering and the human reality. So it's important for people to understand the statistics that you just provided. I mean, to put that in context - 1.2 million children sort of seeking refuge across the border, that's twice the population of Washington, D.C. - that's huge - 4.3 million children inside Syria need food, medicine, water - that's the population of Los Angeles.

So these are really huge numbers. And, yes, there are things that can be done - the Security Council recently passed a resolution, and this diplomatic breakthrough we very much want to see translate into a humanitarian breakthrough on the ground. So there are things they can do to relieve the suffering, even in a war zone.

MARTIN: Your new report suggests that a big problem is not just the active conflict - you know, the bullets, the bombs - but really the collapse of the entire health care system. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

KLOSSON: Certainly, so it is a case that, you know, 10,000 children have died from shells and bullets and bombs, but many more are dying and many - even more than that are at risk because the health system itself is collapsing. What that means is that say - I think 60 percent of hospitals, almost over a third of the clinics are either damaged or destroyed. So if you're lucky enough, though, if you're lucky enough to get to a hospital or a clinic, half the doctors have left the country.

So even if you get to a building, there may not be any sort of expert staff inside, much less medicines, to care. So what we're seeing is we've seen a breakdown in - for example, in the immunization system - so polio is back. Polio was eradicated a generation ago - 1995. There's 25 confirmed cases inside Syria, their estimates are that about 80,000 kids potentially have been infected, and we're starting to see reports that some of these children, some of these cases, are actually showing up in neighboring countries. So it's a huge challenge.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you - before the world, how were things in Syria in terms of basic medical care?

KLOSSON: I think Syria - my understanding is - and I'd visited Syria before the war - it had sort of a functioning health system, it was a middle-income country. And it had a decent reputation for caring for its people. If you look at some of the Millennium Development Goal indicators, for example, Syria was well on the path of reducing by two-thirds under five mortality. So that speaks to a functioning health system. I think there's a question now whether that's going to continue under present circumstances.

MARTIN: What are some of the other stories that stood out from your reporting about the way the collapse of the health system has affected kids that people might not think about if they've never been through a crisis like this themselves?

KLOSSON: Right. So, I mean, let me give a couple - one is when I was most recently in Jordan - I haven't been visiting kids inside Syria, it's dangerous - I have visited our programs in Jordan and seen some of the kids that are there and they're very poignant stories. These are children who have seen their fathers killed or shot in the legs. There's one 10-year-old I saw in East Amman and she - I was asking her what would she - when she grows up what kind of life does she want?

And she wants to be a doctor. Why? Her brother had been beaten severely in both hands so he can no longer work and her father's missing. She wanted to care for people. Inside Syria itself, you have these really horrific reports of, you know, sort of - mothers and fathers bringing their children to a hospital and it's a wounded child and what they're being told by the doctor there is the only option is amputation. We don't have the equipment, we don't have the skills that are needed to perform surgery, short of amputation. And you have stories...

MARTIN: You're saying absent that, these are injuries that could otherwise be treated...

KLOSSON: Correct.

MARTIN: Apart from amputating the the kids limbs, but there is just not the capacity now for any other.

KLOSSON: They just don't have the capacity in a lot of places. And then you have - you also have reports of, you know, newborns being put in incubators and then the power gets cut off and the newborns die. You know, these - you can imagine the horror of this, but this is everyday reality in Syria.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Michael Klosson from Save the Children. We're talking at the humanitarian crisis in Syria. This crisis is entering its fourth year. Are there any pathways to addressing this? I mean, obviously, you know, that people have been negotiating or trying to negotiate over getting humanitarian aid - just basics like food, water and medical supplies - to the population throughout the whole of this conflict. So is there any pathway here to alleviating this kind of suffering?

KLOSSON: Well, a couple of points there - one is that there are nonprofits like Save the Children that are not only working in neighboring countries, but we're also on the ground in Syria. And I think over the last of the couple of years, we've probably reached almost close to a million kids in the whole area, probably half of them inside Syria itself. So there is some capacity, it needs to be scaled up, but there is some capacity to provide essential life-saving services. What's needed, the breakthrough that's needed, is to overcome the barriers that get put in the way of that work moving forward. The Security Council, last October, issued a presidential statement calling for increased humanitarian access within Syria.

Last month, the Security Council upped the ante and passed a unanimous resolution that called for, you know, sort of an unfettered humanitarian assistance and they called for people to stop targeting hospitals, for example, and to stop militarizing civilian facilities. So I think there's the makings of a way forward where the humanitarian groups that are on the ground that can do this work could get greater access. And obviously we will need support from the American people and the international community to do this. But there is a path forward and the Security Council resolution, I think, indicates that. And we've see that in other conflicts. I mean, if you look at Nepal, Nepal was undergoing a lot of civil conflict a number of years back, and they declared schools being zones of peace. And that was relatively successful, where schools were then removed from being targets in the fighting. So I think what happened in Nepal certainly could happen in Syria.

MARTIN: But how are these services being delivered now? I mean, you just pointed out that the infrastructure is severely compromised and that many of the trained personnel have left the country, presumably for their own safety and that of their families, but also because they've been targets. We've seen situations where medical personnel have been targeted themselves. So how are these services being delivered now? Are they just points of where safe - you know, safe passage is - occurs and then people can kind of deliver some supplies and offer some services and then they have to leave again? So is that how it is?

KLOSSON: I think it's very much catch-as-catch-can. And I would give - I would salute the Syrians who are providing medical support, who've stayed behind doing this kind of work 'cause it's pretty courageous. And if you look at - there has been, in the last month or two, there have been efforts to reach an increased number of children with vaccinations for polio, and that really is at the community level and it's Syrians doing this work, you know, putting themselves in harm's way. But they've successfully gotten the vaccine around.

MARTIN: Finally, often people listen to a conversation like this and they think, you know, that's terrible, but what can I do? So what's the answer to that?

KLOSSON: Well, the answer is at least twofold - one is they can certainly support groups that are on the ground actually delivering this assistance. And secondly, I think it's important that the world leaders understand that people want the bloodshed to stop and they want humanitarian aid to get through and they should use their voice to make that clear. And there are opportunities - there's a vigil Thursday night in Washington - and around the world actually - where people can upload on to Facebook. If they go on to SavetheChildren.org or #WithSyria, there are ways of them using their voices to call for increased attention and greater humanitarian access in Syria.

MARTIN: Michael Klosson is vice president of Policy and Humanitarian Response for the global nonprofit Save the Children. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Michael Klosson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KLOSSON: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.