Reflecting On 3-Year Syrian War: 'There But For The Grace Of God'

Saturday is the three-year anniversary of the war in Syria. Nigel Timmins of Oxfam talks with NPR's Arun Rath about the humanitarian crisis there and the Syrian people he has met.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

And I want to take you back exactly three years to March 15, 2011. It was the height of the Arab Spring. In Damascus, hundreds of young Syrians protested in the streets for the first time. They wanted democracy and freedom of expression. And they wanted President Bashar al-Assad out.

Over the next two weeks, hundreds turned to thousands in marches across Syria. And then late in March of 2011, Assad's forces opened fire on protesters. It was the beginning of a hideous and protracted civil war. Three years later, nearly half the population has been displaced. Two million refugees have fled the country.

Nigel Timmins is the deputy humanitarian director for the aid group Oxfam. I asked him to reflect on how the war has affected the lives of ordinary Syrians he's met.

NIGEL TIMMINS: Meeting people who had come out of Syria, talking to them about their experiences, one of the things that has repeatedly struck me is how, you know, these people like you and I, you know, but for the grace of God, these could be - these are people who have careers and pension plans, had bank accounts. They had watched disasters in other countries on TV. They never thought it would happen to them.

RATH: You've written about some of the Syrians you've met over the course of this conflict. Can you talk about a woman you call Sabeen? It's a pseudonym, though, that you use for her own safety.

TIMMINS: Yeah, that's right. I met her in Jordan in a refugee camp and went into where they're staying, like a little caravan. And (unintelligible) as I sat down, there was a very small baby, just, you know, a matter of weeks old, on the cushion next to me. So I just asked Sabeen, I go, you know, sort of how old is she and so on.

And she explained her story. And essentially, they had been home in a village when shelling had started in their area. The house immediately next door got hit by shell and was damaged. And they said, enough, we have to leave. We have to leave now. So they literally fled at night - they have three other children - what they could carry. And she was very heavily pregnant.

They made it to a nearby village just a few miles down the road. And while she was there, she went into labor only with her husband's to help to deliver the baby. But then the fighting - the front line shifted and the shelling came to that community as well. And so they explained how within 24 hours of her being in labor they were on the run again, off to somewhere else to try and get away from the fighting.

And it just really struck me because I'm a father myself, and I know sort of going through childbirth with my wife, this sense of desperation of fear you must have to make the choice to run when you're so soon after going through labor. And I think we often underestimate what a profound decision it is to make yourself refugee, to choose to leave your country to cross a border without a passport and a visa but just to sort of put yourself on the mercy of the authorities of another country is a profound decision.

RATH: Oh. Nigel, you talked about how the humanitarian concerns have shifted and varied over the course of the past three years. At this moment now, three years into the conflict, what is the most urgent humanitarian concern that you have?

TIMMINS: I think it's for many people, they need access to safe water. We're seeing the rise of some diseases in Syria that they haven't seen before, this being an outbreak of polio, leishmaniasis, which is a sort of skin-related disease is on the growth. But I think fundamentally is protection that's an end to the conflict. You know, people are moving because of the shelling, because of the fighting, because of the security concerns. So fundamentally it's about trying to bring an end to this conflict.

RATH: Nigel Timmins is the deputy humanitarian director for Oxfam. Nigel, thank you very much.

TIMMINS: You're very welcome.

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