Drawn-Out Syrian Civil War Spawns A Literal Dark Age Once, Syria was a modern nation. Today, after five years of brutal conflict, 83 percent of the country's lights are out and life expectancies are 20 years shorter.

Drawn-Out Syrian Civil War Spawns A Literal Dark Age

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As the war in Syria enters its fifth year, life there just keeps getting worse. One U.N. agency finds life expectancy has plummeted by 20 years. Another study says the country is, quote, "entering the dark ages literally." NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At his office at Save the Children, Vice President for Policy Michael Klosson glances over at his computer to see the dramatic satellite images of Syria at night.

MICHAEL KLOSSON: The conflict has plunged Syria into darkness. And what we are going to be showing through these images is that 83 percent of the lights in Syria have gone off from March 2011 to this past February.

KELEMEN: That's the average. In some contested areas like Aleppo, he says researchers have found that 97 percent of the lights have gone out as infrastructure is destroyed and civilians flee their homes. Klosson says he thinks these images illustrate that the hopes for Syria's children - his aid group's focus - are darkening.

KLOSSON: You've got five and a half million kids who need humanitarian assistance. That's equivalent to the population of the entire state of Maryland. That's a lot of kids in need.

KELEMEN: A new report issued by a U.N. agency says life expectancy has fallen from nearly 76 years to under 56 in Syria. Education is in a state of collapse, and the country is descending into poverty. Last year, the U.N. Security Council passed resolutions to open up aid routes, but activists say that hasn't helped.

GAWAIN KRIPKE: The U.N. and the world has failed, and things have gotten worse for civilians in Syria.

KELEMEN: That's Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research at Oxfam America.

KRIPKE: Our ability to provide assistance has been limited. And there are more people in places that are hard to reach now than there were before the U.N. took action.

KELEMEN: 4.8 million people, up from 2.5 in 2013. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is adding to this crisis, but Kripke says Washington has been too focused on that.

KRIPKE: We're spending a lot of time, money and resources focusing on parts of the conflict - like ISIS - but it's not a comprehensive solution to the conflict and it's ignoring the suffering that's going on.

KELEMEN: Reading reports about the staggering civilian toll can seem overwhelming. And that worries Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps, who spoke to us by phone from his office in Beirut.

NIGEL PONT: It has the danger of people switching off because it's hard to imagine what can be done. And I think that our experience as a humanitarian organization, that while we're not able to put an end to this war and while we can't alleviate everyone's suffering, we are able to help millions of people a year.

KELEMEN: Back at the office of Save the Children, Klosson worries, too, that the world's attention is shifting away from Syria. He's urging the U.S. and other world powers to step up humanitarian assistance and work harder to find a solution to the conflict.

KLOSSON: That's how you get the lights back on.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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