A rickety 50-year-old cargo plane, touching down in Damascus, has become the first relief flight from Europe since the start of the devastating three-year-old Syrian civil war. On board were desperately needed supplies for the beleaguered population, ranging from winter coats, electric heaters, rice and beans, to diapers and even chocolate sprinkles.
Newsmax hitched a ride on the flight and got a first-hand look at the terrible chaos on the ground that has left more than 100,000 civilians dead, according to the United Nations — at least 5,000 of them said to be children.
What made this flight most remarkable was that it had not been organized by the U.N. or some other large aid organization. Instead, the entire operation had been put together by a small group of Dutch volunteers who had grown increasingly upset by the images of millions of refugees and war victims coming out of Syria, and decided that something had to be done.
Calling themselves the “Help Syria Through the Winter” campaign, they got themselves a free warehouse, reached out through Facebook, and within days people started donating goods and money.
The plan to distribute the goods was no less ambitious. Most relief organizations cater to the needs of some 2½ million refugees outside Syria, in camps located in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.
But inside Syria the humanitarian crisis is even more devastating, with an estimated 6½ million people counted as “internally displaced persons,” or refugees in their own country. These refugees get little or no help.
The “Help Syria” campaign decided to bring relief to these refugees in and around Damascus, where the established aid agencies cannot or will not go. The distribution effort took longer than planned, but finally, on Jan. 30, a large convoy got to those who needed the donations the most.
On the flight to Syria there was, apart from this journalist, only one passenger, Amin Abu Rashed, a Dutch citizen of Palestinian descent. Rashed has dedicated most of his life to humanitarian causes, mostly involving Palestinians. The fact that this flight to Damascus was at all possible was largely due to his efforts negotiating permission with the Syrian regime.
His gift for diplomacy became apparent when the plane landed at the deserted Damascus International Airport, where it was met by soldiers, secret service agents, and airport authorities.
Rashed made phone calls and within an hour the cargo and passengers were allowed to proceed, uniting with volunteers who had traveled to Damascus days before by car from Beirut.
Kinda al-Shammat, the Syrian minister of Social Affairs who is in charge of humanitarian aid, had issued the necessary permits and passes that would enable the supplies to be distributed to refugees in and around Damascus.
During a meeting at her offices, she assured the aid workers and journalists that her government is committed to facilitating the aid to everyone who needs it.
There was no risk of the military seizing relief goods, she told Newsmax, because the army is already well supplied and wouldn’t need to steal humanitarian aid.
“The truth of the matter is, she facilitates aid to victims of a war that her own government has started,” said Mohammed Cheppih, one of the founders of the aid campaign.
“To sit at the table with such people, even if it’s just for five minutes, I find that horrible. But we need her cooperation to get anything done here,” Cheppih told Newsmax after the meeting with al-Shammat.
Nothing is as it seems in Damascus.
It seems like city traffic is bustling in chaotic fashion, with cars honking their horns and moving bumper to bumper through the streets — until you notice that there is a military checkpoint every half-mile, manned by stressed-out soldiers who search every trunk and check paperwork.
It seems like people are going about their daily affairs, buying groceries and visiting stores — until you learn that prices have tripled because of the war and many simply cannot afford to buy food.
A Syrian member of the aid team, Ahmed, tells how he just heard that his brother has died. He disappeared in February of last year. His car was found empty, and a lot of money was also missing.
It turned out he had been kidnapped by the Shabiha, the paramilitary thugs of the Assad family. It was the Shabiha who started firing on peaceful protesters back in 2011 and thus sparked what would become a brutal civil war. In exchange for doing the dirty work for the Assad clan, the Shabiha is allowed to run extortion rackets, black markets, smuggle, and kidnap.
Refugees are everywhere in Damascus. People are camping in public parks and on sidewalks. Families live in makeshift tents in underground parking lots. Others are cramped together in mosques or schools that have been repurposed as shelters.
One never has to look very far for gruesome stories. When you first look at Amina, you see a pretty face with dark eyes looking at you from under an elegant headscarf. Look further down and you realize that she is in a wheelchair. Look closer, and you see that steel rods and plates protrude from one of her legs.
Amina was returning home from a bakery when a car bomb exploded, flattening her home and ripping her leg to pieces. She was treated, but having lost her belongings and resources, she has been forced to live for eight months in a tent inside the Khan Dannun refugee camp outside Damascus, with three children and no money to pay for the surgery she needs on her painful leg.
Many of the refugees come from Yarmouk, which started as a camp for Palestinian refugees in the early 1950s. Over the years, it grew into a lively neighborhood of Damascus, with shops lining clean streets and squares while housing an increasing number of non-Palestinians as well.
When protests started in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad, the Palestinians were told to stay out of the conflict. But Palestinians in Syria are very much divided. Many are loyal to Assad presidency because Syria has given them equal rights with access to healthcare and education. Others joined the opposition.
Yarmouk eventually fell into the hands of various rebel groups. The battles and bombing caused many residents to flee to other Palestinian camps, to improvised shelters, or to Lebanon.
Since Yarmouk was taken over by opposition groups, it has been hermetically sealed off from the outside world by the Syrian army and its allies. No one can go in or out, no food is allowed to enter, and not even medicine or humanitarian aid is allowed to pass.
Between 20,000 and 40,000 people are trapped inside, including about 3,000 children under 9 years old. The tactic of the Assad regime is to starve them until opposition groups withdraw or surrender.
The Palestinian Red Crescent, similar to the Red Cross, has a hospital inside Yarmouk, but it has not been possible to resupply it in almost a year, said Dr. Shaker Shihabi, a pediatrician who heads the Syrian chapter of the organization.
“The hospital sends me daily reports and the situation is deteriorating. There are more and more cases of hepatitis A and we fear that we have cases of tuberculosis,” Shihabi told Newsmax.
The only connection with the outside world is through social media, when residents are able to use erratic Internet service. They post harrowing pictures of people dying of hunger, of emaciated corpses, videos of hollow-eyed children begging for food.
Getting help to this black hole of the Syrian war was the holy grail of the Help Syria humanitarian campaign.
Among the allies of the Assad regime that keep Yarmouk sealed off are at least two Palestinian groups.
The most important is the PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command). Sponsored by Assad and reportedly Iran, they used to have their headquarters in Yarmouk until they were chased out by opposition forces. The leader of the PFLP-GC, the elusive Ahmed Jibril, fled to a Syrian coastal resort town. His second-in-command, Talal Naji, took over.
He told Newsmax that the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra group, which controls Yarmouk, does not want to let civilians leave the area, effectively using them as a human shield.
However, Naji also supports the Syrian position that all armed opposition groups will have to leave Yarmouk before any aid can be allowed to enter.
To bring in aid, Rashed would have to negotiate no less than a cease-fire, even if only for a couple of hours, between the parties in and around Yarmouk.
At one point, it looked as if he had succeeded, but then al-Nusra called to say that it would become a bloodbath, warning that another group, Jaish al Hor, which holds an area adjacent to the road to Yarmouk, would open fire on everything that moved there.
Jaish al Hor, Rashed explained, is basically an umbrella group for criminal gangs that loot, kidnap, and run extortion rackets. What they don’t do is negotiate.
It looked as if Rashed would be stymied. But then he did negotiate a breakthrough, and our convoy of overloaded minivans was allowed to move along.
Its significance lay not in its size or the goods that were being carried, but in its destination: This caravan, if successful, would be the first humanitarian relief to reach the starving people of Yarmouk in a long time.
The agreement was that the convoy would reach the no-man’s land between the Syrian army and the rebel groups that hold Yarmouk, then stop and unload supplies. A limited number of people would then be allowed to leave Yarmouk to pick up the packages and carry them back.
But then, things went wrong.
Upon reaching the last checkpoint, Rashed was told to wait. And then the Syrian soldiers told us that fighting had broken out between them and al-Nusra.
Rashed made phone calls, and heard that the army had decided to start an attack. About 150 people were now waiting inside the camp to meet the convoy, but they couldn’t leave.
“We’ve been duped,” said Rashed. “They’re playing games with us.”
Rashed started another round of frantic calls and negotiations, but to no avail: He could not make the warring parties stop shooting. At five that afternoon, the convoy had to turn around and head back before dark, to avoid the snipers.
Rashed briefly returned to the Netherlands in January. But he didn’t stop pushing for a solution. He wrote a lengthy report on the situation in Yarmouk and the difficulties the aid group had encountered, and sent it to the European Commission and the United Nations.
The media started to pay more attention to the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding in Damascus as more and more gruesome pictures of dying people found their way onto Facebook pages and other outlets. Rashed was interviewed on Al Jazeera and other Arab news stations.
And on Jan. 18, a similar convoy was finally allowed through, but was able to distribute only 170 food packages.
Later that day, news came out of Yarmouk that the recipients of the food packages had decided to share what they had with others who had not been so fortunate. They cooked and ate together in the streets what was for many their first decent meal in weeks or months.
On Jan. 30, another larger convoy was allowed to pass, this time accompanied by the U.N.
While the boxes of supplies were being unloaded, the Assad regime attacked the nearby suburb of Daraya. Helicopter gunships dropped barrels packed with explosives and fuel, killing at least 11 people.
Images started appearing of vans being unloaded in Yarmouk. One picture showed Rashed standing by a Syrian soldier next to the vans, in the middle of the rubble and ruins that Yarmouk has become.
I recalled that while we were waiting at one checkpoint, I asked the soldier if there was any coffee. “No coffee here,” he replied, smiling. “Just blood. Lots of blood. It’s also warm, and it tastes sweet, so you don’t have to add any sugar.”
This story was first published in NewsMax on February 5, 2014