Kayla Mueller And The Impossibly Dangerous Job Of Providing Aid To Syria

CREDIT: AP
CREDIT: AP

Kayla Mueller knew that she was putting herself in harm’s way when she slipped from to the Turkish-Syrian border into Syria, but the 26-year-old American felt compelled to help.

“This really is my life’s work, to go where there is suffering,” she wrote on her blog. “I suppose, like us all, I’m learning how to deal with the suffering of the world inside myself.”

Killed after being held captive by ISIS for more than a year, Mueller’s death followed that of a fellow American aid worker, Abdul Rahman Kassig, who was beheaded by ISIS militants in November. British aid worker David Haines, was similarly executed in September.

While the threats to aid workers have come into a shocking light with their apparent targeting and brutal killings by ISIS militants, aid workers in Syria faced grave threats even before the Islamist militant group began to gain ground there last year. According to an email from the Humanitarian Outcomes’ Aid Worker Security Database which tracks such figures, 55 aid workers have been killed since the start of the conflict in Syria in March 2011. In terms of absolute figures, that’s the highest number of aid worker deaths in any country aside from Afghanistan.

When asked if he has scaled back foreign aid workers from Syria in light of ISIS’ killings, Trevor Hughes, the Director of Risk Management and Global Security at International Relief and Development (IRD) said, “I’m hesitant to send anybody anywhere in Syria.” His organization provides aid to Syria as well as other countries around the world, as a United States government contractor. “We don’t have any aid workers — local or foreign — who willy-nilly go in and out on any regular schedule. We take every movement extremely seriously and put a lot of work into it.”

No IRD aid workers have been killed in Syria, he said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress, and that’s a record he works assiduously to maintain.

Hughes said that while ISIS’ attempts to capture, ransom, or kill foreigners is concerning, the group’s gruesome stunts haven’t had a real impact on his work — especially because many kidnappings are carried out by opportunitists. “You have the shifting lines between rival groups, and just because you’re taken by a rival group that isn’t regime-aligned or ISIS-aligned doesn’t mean that they’re not going to see you as a commodity to get sold up which happens a lot in numerous of countries,” he said.

And more often the threats are not so different from other conflict zones, although he says the frequency of bombings and violence are what’s concerning. “It depends where you are, [but there are] barrel bombs, they’re still flying the planes around, you’re still within artillery range in some areas,” Hugues said.

Of course there are real threats, he said, but the threats also effect those who are in desperate need of the food, sanitation kits, winterization materials, infrastructure repair material, and medical supplies that his organization provides to those who are “stuck” in of the conflict.

In June 2014 the United Nations officials said that it could deliver aid to as many as two million people in separatist-controlled Syria. But by the end of the year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that the actual numbers of aid recipients were far lower. In separatist-controlled areas, only 208,000 received food aid, only 250,000 received medical aid, and water and sanitation equipment was delivered to as few as 86,000.

According to the U.N., the conflict in Syria has caused the worst humanitarian crises since World War II, with more than 150,000 people killed and 12.2 million (more than half of the Syrian population) in need of humanitarian aid.

Ban Ki-moon called the denial of aid “a deliberate tactic of war aimed at denying help and support to those most in need.”

That’s something that the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) has been a victim of. The organization was founded by Syrian-American physicians to support and train medical personnel within the country. In a report, it noted that “Every single medical facility that SAMS supports inside of Syria has been targeted by an air strike or barrel bomb at some point in time and every month we lose additional medical personnel in targeted attacks.”

In the opposition-held territory of Aleppo, there are only around 30 physicians supporting a population of around 300,000. In Eastern Ghouta, there is only one vascular surgeon and one thoracic surgeon, and they were both seriously injured in this past week’s attack on the city.

These attacks on medical facilities and medical personnel are not random. According to the group’s report on implementing aid in Syria, the attacks are very often deliberate — and doubly devastating.

“The intentional targeting of medical facilities and personnel in Syria has led to a severe lack of medical personnel in the places where they are needed the most, and discourages civilians from seeking treatment when they are sick or injured, further endangering civilian lives and decreasing the impact of humanitarian aid efforts,” according to SAMS’ report.

The Syrian government has blocked food, medicine, and other relief goods from reaching millions of civilians in separatist-held territory since the start of the war, often struggling to keep those supplies for their backers. Giving up on providing aid to those in separatist areas would mean helping the authoritarian ruler starve his own people. And so aid groups persist despite the risks.

“Barrel bombs and airstrikes are a daily occurrence, and make the road incredibly dangerous, and sometimes temporarily shut down. Vehicles are targeted, and aid trucks and ambulances are hesitant to travel on that road,” SAMS’ communication manager Kathleen Fallon said in an email to ThinkProgress.

There are only around 30 physicians to serve a population of around 300,000 in the separatist-held city of Aleppo, she said. In Eastern Ghouta just outside of Damascus, there is only one vascular surgeon and one thoracic surgeon, she said, adding that both of them were seriously injured in an attack on the city last week.

While ISIS poses real threats to civilians, Fallon says the militant group’s territory is not the hardest to supply with aid.

“All around the ‘hardest to reach’ areas are truly the contested areas,” she said. “Operations in areas where one party is in control, including ISIS controlled areas, have gone much more smoothly than in the contested areas where fighting is active and airstrikes are at their height.”

In its report, SAMS has called for “some sort of protection” for the aid sent to Syria — because it’s not just a few American or British nationals being picked up by ISIS that are a concern, but the many aid workers and medical personnel who are being targeted by the various sides of this three-front war.

“The Syrian personnel working on the ground are the unsung heroes of both the UN cross-border aid process and all other humanitarian aid deliveries,” the SAMS report noted. It added that there are no security measures in place across organizations to keep them safe.

SAMS called for a “UN-designated humanitarian locations” to enforce neutrality on medical grounds and secure sites in the way that chemical weapons are secured.

This would be in lieu of actually arming aid trucks and workers — something almost no humanitarian organization would deem acceptable under any circumstances.

SAMS and International Relief and Development both see securing aid deliveries with weapon as counterproductive to their missions to serve without causing harm — not to mention dangerous since having weapons could make them more legitimate targets for attack.

According to Trevor Hughes of IRD, “That would be a no-win situation.”