Guest blog by the Red Cross’ Tommaso Della Longa, in Damascus
“A few days ago, we intervened to rescue some injured people. Everything was going well, when the situation suddenly deteriorated into a firefight. We found ourselves caught up in the middle for three hours, with no protection, except for the emblem.” The person who speaks is a 24-year-old university student, who is also a volunteer with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). There is no fear in his voice, he is calm, and he shows us the other members of his team on the street. They know they must do what they are doing. “Otherwise, who would do it?”
In the operations room there are dozens of volunteers, young men and women ready to step in when the call comes. “Today is calm,” says one, while outside the sharp noise of Katyusha rockets is never far away. In a situation of continuous violence, the noise can become so prevalent, that it almost fades away. Almost. “When a call comes in, we activate the team and the ambulance leaves immediately. In some areas it is difficult to enter, but every time we try to find an agreement with the parties to protect the injured.” Two days earlier, four ambulances rushed to the place where a car bomb had exploded, but here we also take care of those whose suffering is not related to the war.
What is striking is the incredible strength volunteers bear within themselves: they are always smiling. In the room where they wait for the calls, they drink coffee, they play, and they smoke cigarettes or listen to music. “Smiling is part of our job,” they tell us; showing a dignity and inner strength that cannot fail to strike a chord.
Before leaving to visit a SARC clinic, they invite us to come back in the afternoon: “At 6pm there will be a commemoration of the volunteers who lost their lives, and we would be happy to have [your] participation.”
In 2013, there are still places where relief workers are not respected by combatants and here in Syria many volunteers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict, in violation of the Geneva Conventions. There are many, it seems, who do not know – or choose to ignore – that SARC, following the Fundamental Principle of neutrality, work to protect all those who are affected by the conflict, regardless of the uniform they wear or the ideology they embrace.
In the afternoon we manage to get back to the headquarters. We find dozens of youngsters who are preparing the ceremony: candles, a banner, and photos of some of the volunteers who were killed. We go down to the ambulance parking lot. The vehicles are in motion with the lights on. The head of the emergency service makes a speech; the silence is full of intense emotions. Those faces that just hours before had appeared smiling and determined, now become darker. Someone starts to cry, others make a knot around those who are feeling sick and hold them tight just like any big family.
The ceremony lasts less than an hour, the sun is going down, the volunteers have to change shifts and those who have finished want to hurry and get back to their own families, before Damascus turns back into a ghost town, with the thunder of artillery that keeps it awake.
“Among them there is brotherhood, complicity, friendship. Now they are crying, but when they are out there, in the midst of gunfire or bombing, there is no excitement or fatigue. They know that bringing relief is their priority,” says one of the volunteers.
We have no hesitation in believing it.
In addition to appeals for humanitarian aid, however, it is important to return to talk about the safety of healthcare staff in emergencies. The Red Cross is carrying out a campaign called ‘Health care in danger’ and right now it is more vital than ever in every country and every context. Because the number of volunteers from SARC who lost their lives must not increase. Because protecting volunteers in Syria and in the world means protecting all of us. Because those who paid with their lives for their commitment to defending the life of the most vulnerable should be a spur to change and should never be forgotten.