4 June 2013 Many United Nations staff members are deployed in duty stations deemed difficult or hazardous, but the current situation in violence-torn Syria presents the furthest extreme in work conditions – all-out open combat.
For staff of the UN Relief and Works Agency for the Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) that has been the reality in the over two years since the uprising against the Government of Bashar al-Assad began.
Asked to describe her work day, an UNRWA official based in the Palestinian refugee camp in Homs told the UN News Centre that she and her co-workers maintain their service to refugees amid the constant sound of artillery blasts, some distant, some nearer. When they were fighting in Baba Amr whole shells were coming over our heads, and we were counting down to hear the explosions. Our building was really shaking and our windows would open.
It was most harrowing when the adjoining neighbourhood of Baba Amr was the scene of fierce fighting. “When they were fighting in Baba Amr whole shells were coming over our heads, and we were counting down to hear the explosions. Our building was really shaking and our windows would open,” she said.
After that experience and two years of conflict, low-flying aircraft were still terrifying, she says, but she has gotten accustomed to the daily barrage. “For mortar and tank shelling, everybody is used to this,” she said.
She works, she said, a minimum of 12 hours a day now, because of extra time needed to visit facilities she monitors, the increased workload due to incoming and outgoing displaced persons and the fact that she herself is displaced inside the refugee camp, with little else to do.
Early on in the fighting she had fled from her home in another neighbourhood to take up residence near the UNRWA offices, which are in tucked in the centre of the half- mile square refugee camp, which has not been a focus of fighting.
Despite the relative calm within the camp, security rules the day. Every evening and every morning, the office reviews the situation to determine which installations are possible to visit. Staff travelling from locations outside the camp are often advised to stay at home.
Those who are expected in the morning and do not appear are called find out their situation, “whether they left, they’re kidnapped, they disappeared, detained you know... we are facing such cases on a daily basis,” she said.
After checking on the safety of all staff, the office starts receiving refugees and trying to meet their needs, including emergency aid in the form of cash assistance and food packages. A newly-set up section registers IDPs coming from other areas because of the crisis.
The office has no municipal electricity. For that reason, paperwork, communications, data input and anything else done by computer has to been done during a two-hour period in the morning during which staff has agreed was the best time to turn on the generator, which has a limited supply of fuel.
For lunch, the staff members are able to get fruit and vegetables from Latakia and other areas that have not yet been badly affected by the fighting, although inflation is rampant. “What you were previously were paying 100 Syrian pounds now it costs 800 Syrian pounds. The meat is very expensive,” the official said.
Afternoons are reserved for visits to other UNRWA facilities. “We used to travel to Hama in 45 minutes from Homs. Now we need five hours,” she said, listing neighbourhoods that must be avoided.When she cannot travel, she checks on the situation of students in nearby UNRWA schools.
Despite all precautions, staff remain extremely vulnerable. A clerk was kidnapped with his car several weeks ago on his way home from work and demands for ransom have changed to offers of a swap. “Up to now he is still kidnapped and we don’t know where he is,” the UNRWA officer said.
A week before that, a staff driver was taken with a vehicle full of medicines that he was bringing to the Hama camp. They have not been able to make contact with him either, she said.
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