HOMS, Syria: From her schoolroom office at the Asma High School – now a makeshift refugee camp in the central Inshaat district of Homs – a young Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer is in tears.
The school is now home to some 600 people displaced for at least the second time from the government-besieged neighborhoods of Bab Amr, Khaldieh and Bayda, after clashes forced them from their homes again last week.
Most of the families here left their homes in August last year after a tough government campaign to dislodge rebel forces from the area. They trickled back to their homes over the months, only to be uprooted again when the violence made the situation untenable.
“Some of these people have been displaced five or six times,” the woman explains. “They left Bab Amr to Inshaat, then from Inshaat to Aleppo, then Aleppo to Bab Amr and then here they are back again,” says the woman, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
The latest bout of violence in Bab Amr saw the relocation of some 3,000 people in two weeks alone, while others, SARC and U.N. officials say, are still waiting for somewhere to go.
“Some of them are in the streets. Some of them have nowhere to go and I am sure some of them have just died,” the woman says.
Despite the desperate and growing need, the woman – who manages the distribution of food, blankets, tents and medical supplies in coordination with U.N. agencies, such as UNHCR, and the World Food Program, at the school – is packing her things to abandon the families to their fate.
She and other volunteers in the Homs governorate – one of the most needy governorates in Syria – are striking, complaining of what they say is danger, deliberate targeting and partisanship that has made their job impossible.
“We have been stopped from going to places to provide health and emergency services, we have been threatened, we have been arrested, we have been killed for doing our job,” the woman says, holding her head in her hands with frustration.
“We had an agreement with the government that the Red Crescent should not be questioned or harassed for helping people. We are volunteers and we are nonpartisan. We should be allowed to do our job.”
SARC, the oldest and largest emergency relief provider in Syria, employs thousands of volunteers and operates across the country. The organization abides by a strict nonpartisan policy. But in a civil conflict as divisive as Syria’s, that policy has been increasingly strained.
Working under government ministerial administration and dependent on the Syrian state for funds and access, SARC is frequently accused by opposition groups of working for the regime.
Accusations that the organization has been infiltrated by government informers are also common, with some accusing the group of delivering injured protesters and opposition fighters to the hands of government security services.
Red Crescent volunteers have told The Daily Star, on condition of anonymity, that SARC ambulances have bypassed government hospitals, fearing the opposition’s injured will be arrested and detained, and instead delivered patients to opposition-run field hospitals.
Accusations have recently surfaced that SARC volunteers are harboring opposition elements and even facilitating the transfer of weapons – charges that SARC volunteers strenuously deny.
At least 30 SARC volunteers have been killed in the course of the Syrian conflict, but the organization has resisted divulging the parties responsible for each death, in line with its charter.
“They accuse us of helping the terrorists and even giving them weapons. In some opposition areas, we have not been able to give food. ... They either won’t let us in or they took the supplies themselves,” the woman says.
“They think these people are terrorists who do not deserve help.”
The woman was speaking in the presence of government representatives.
Asked whether she is worried about making the claims, she says she is certain of what she was saying.
“I don’t care,” she adds. “This is what is happening.”
Government officials assured The Daily Star no harm would come to the woman following her claims, insisting she was free to express her opinion.
In one incident, last week, corroborated by two SARC volunteers, the organization was called to attend to injured as a result of an explosion in the Homs governorate. After gaining access to the site through government checkpoints, they were then stopped by state security officials, with the drivers and wounded all detained overnight.
SARC officials said their volunteers were beaten and interrogated for refusing to deliver the wounded to the hands of security officials. At least one of those who witnessed the incident is believed to still be in detention and has not been heard from.
Other senior Red Crescent officials confirmed the strike was going ahead, saying it was a temporary measure in Homs, wrought by necessity.
“We decided we would leave the field to let both sides know what it means when we are not there,” the senior official said, admitting it was a drastic measure that could see people die.
“We are an organization that is not working for one side or the other in the Homs governorate, which stretches from the Lebanon border to Deir al-Zor,” the official said.
“Every day we have over 150 volunteers going out and helping people from different sects and different politics. We don’t want thanks. We do this because we want to, but the point we are making is that we should be allowed to do our job safely and not prevented from going to this area or that area.
“Our volunteers have been arrested, kidnapped, injured and even killed. Any of them would have the right to say: ‘I am not working under these conditions.’”
The official said the Homs governor had been informed of the strike and the results of a meeting with security heads would determine how long the protest continues.
In Asma camp, the plight of Bab Amr’s refugees continues.
In the classroom that now houses her mother and 30 other relatives, all women and children, Khalijeh says she is still prepared to return to her home, if it is still standing.
“We got used to the fighting but when the planes came, we got scared and left because we know they don’t have specific targets,” she says.
“But of course we will go back again. This is no way to live.”