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Life Expectancy Drops Dramatically For Syrians Ravaged By War


While U.S. officials debate policy towards Iran, the true scope of Syria's bloody and protracted civil war remains largely hidden. Both the highly secretive regime in Damascus and violent rebel groups like the Islamic State make reporting incredibly dangerous. But a new report by the UN and the Syrian research group attempts to measure the devastating effects of the war on Syria's people. One striking statistic - the average life expectancy there has dropped by 20 years to age 55. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Beirut. She looked at the report, and she helps us understand what researchers have learned.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a joint project with a think tank called the Syrian Center for Policy Research and agencies from the UN. And what it does help with is quantifying in detail what can be hard to visualize or imagine in the chaotic context of the civil war in Syria.

BLOCK: For example, healthcare, right? What did they find in that area?

FORDHAM: Right, exactly. So its self-evident that in a situation like this a lot of people die in violence or fighting or they can't get medical treatment. But I didn't realize that dramatic life expectancy statistic you mentioned or exactly that half the primary care clinics in the country have close down. Most places don't have any emergency physicians at all.

And the report outlines how these circumstances are then manipulated by some of the factions in the conflict. So if there's a faction in control in one place, they can use access to healthcare as a means of punishing their enemies and rewarding their supporters, or they can financially exploit people with corruption or smuggling or monopolies of health-related items or access to care. And it also reminds us that their best guess is that more than 200,000 people have been killed and about 840,000 wounded in this conflict - 6 percent of the population. But where the report goes into the most detail is the economy.

BLOCK: Now, the economy doesn't strike me frankly as the first thing to come to mind when you're dealing with something like life expectancy.

FORDHAM: Right. Me neither. But it's actually very illuminating as to why some things happen the way they do in Syria. So, of course, the situation is disastrous - 3 million people lost their jobs. There's nearly 60 percent unemployed. The farms are still going, which is helping. But things like the wheat harvest has dropped by a quarter.

And the suffering's been unequal. People that got poor got really poor really fast. Like a third of the country now has trouble feeding their family.

And it leads to things like child labor. So 50 percent of kids aren't in school. So, of course, lots of them are working. But the report says, quote, "a large share of Syrian youth has become involved in conflict-based and illegal activities." And it makes the point that getting people to move on from that even after the conflict is really hard.

BLOCK: So Alice, in the end, does the report assign blame? Does it make any kind of real recommendation?

FORDHAM: In general, it's very careful not to assign blame, actually, in what's a very fragmented and multisided conflict. It doesn't mention Assad or ISIS or any of the rebel groups. It says the solution has to come from all sides. But right at the end, it mentions that the institutions of violence that contributed to this all starting four years ago have to be shut down. And that may be an oblique reference to the regime, really.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Alice, thanks so much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.