Sajjad Malik is UNHCR’s Representative in Syria which means he’s in charge of one of the toughest and most dangerous humanitarian operations. Since relocating to Damascus over two years ago, Sajjad has witnessed massive destruction in besieged towns like Homs and Aleppo and seen the harrowing impact war has on children.
“I get worried that we may not have seen the end of this crisis in Syria. That it has become even more complicated to find a solution. What keeps me awake is my staff that they will perhaps will suffer more than what they have suffered so far. The Syrians that have gone through this, may have to go through more pain and more suffering. And it’s already in its eighth year. It has to stop. It has to stop somewhere. We have been saying enough is enough, but even enough for Syria has a new definition. What is that enough? And these thoughts make me angry, make me sad because at end of the day I see people dying in Syria. People are losing their lives in Syria.”
Melissa Fleming (MF): I feel incredibly moved by what Sajjad just shared with us. With me in this interview. I feel that he really opened himself. You know, it’s not easy to talk about how situations affect you. I know a number of colleagues feel like you know, OK, this affects me, but why should I talk about that? I have a good look at the refugees look at the people under bombardment. And so they tend not to open up so much about their own feelings. But Sajjad did give us that.
He got at times really choked up. Very emotional. It really struck me how much he is absorbing how much tragedy he’s taking in, it’s quite a compelling interview.
Sajjad Malik (SM): I’ve seen many difficult places; Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo. But what I am seeing in Syria somehow is the situation that is not getting to any peace. I get worried that we may not have seen the end of this crisis in Syria. And it’s already in its eighth year. We’ve been saying enough is enough, but even enough for Syria has a new definition. What is that enough? It has to stop. It has to stop somewhere.
Melissa Fleming (MF): Sajjad Malik is our Representative in Syria. That means he’s in charge of one of UNHCR’s toughest and most dangerous operations. Since the war in Syria started in 2011 more than 5.6 million people have fled the country. Many others are displaced inside Syria. I’m Melissa Fleming and this is “Awake At Night.”
Sajjad thank you so much for coming into the studio for taking part in this interview. I’m really looking forward to talking to you about your life and particularly your work in Syria.
Sajjad Malik (SM): I’m here, happy to talk to you Melissa – all the questions are easy ones I hope.
MF: No, no they’re not easy because we’re going to get personal. But you know you are UNHCR’s representative in Syria you have a team of 350 staff working in very dangerous conditions. But you also took the decision to go to Syria. What did your family say when you got the job?
SM: I’ve been in Geneva before going to Damascus and I’ve been observing, reading, talking to colleagues who were based in Damascus. So I had a sort of sense of responsibility and an urge to do something because I’ve spent almost 30 years in UNHCR and a lot of them have been in the field and when High Commissioner asked me to prepare myself for Syria, there was only just one hesitation – to talk to the family. We know Syria was not an easy decision and once I had my in discussions with my wife, we had a few rounds, and then when that was done then the rest was preparing myself to go out and work there.
MF: And I think you needed to have a particular conversation and that is with your mother. What was that like? Tell me what she said.
SM: Yes. Yes my wife – she’s also UNHCR staff member and we both done over 30 years, so we know how things work in UNHCR and our rotations. My mother has been all over the years she has been following my assignments my missions. So she tells me tell me before you get into something big so that I can pray for you can send you my blessings. Now this one was a bit difficult for us because when the Charlie Hebdo case happened in Paris there were lots of riots and I used to tell her that I’m going to Paris that I have a meeting there and she used to get very nervous — don’t go to Paris, it’s not safe, stay in Geneva – don’t go anywhere. And when we started discussing with my wife my assignment in Syria, we were very worried that now if she doesn’t let me go to Paris with comfort and ease how about Syria? But then I got my courage together, I called her on the phone that I’m going to Sham Sharif which is an Arabic word but also in Urdu which means Syria. And first there was no response and then after a while I asked again that I’m going to Syria. Then she asked are you going alone or are you going with the children? I said no I’m going alone, the children and family will stay here in Geneva. And then she said OK go you have my blessing. And I was a bit surprised but then I know that as a kid growing up with her brothers, the only sister of four brothers, she didn’t attend school because those days – she’s now 84 – she was not allowed to go to school, because girls didn’t go school at that time. So she used to sit with her brothers when they used to come back from school doing their homework, and one of her brothers, my uncle, started teaching her how to read and write. And that’s how she started learning and reading. And one of her brothers used to study history and learned Syria. What Syria is all about. And she started taking interest in and started learning. By the time he finished this course she had memorized the whole history of Syria and Sham and Sham Sharif so she knew that Sharm is a very special place religiously and then she said go, you have my blessing, go and help your people. And from there it was for me now that I’m going in into one of the most difficult Duty Stations, but the most important umbrella on top of me was the blessing of my mother that she said go and do that.
MF: Why is the blessing of your mother so important?
SM: We all have our anchors and I think for me, my mother has been all along the person behind us. The story goes on for all of us because when she learned how to read and write she didn’t give up for the next generations. We are a big family are eight siblings five sisters and we are three brothers, and she made sure that each and every one of us go to school. All of my sisters are university graduates. All three of them of working in education department. And she made sure that each and every one of us go to school — education first, education first. She has been my anchor all along. But then also my wife, who is who is a colleague, who is a friend, my wife, my partner. So it is these two persons of my life. I do not take big decisions without consulting them first.
MF: You’ve served in also very difficult and dangerous places before, and now Syria. So what is your thought process when you’re thinking about taking the decision to deploy to places like that?
SM: There’s personal side and there’s professional side. I think personal side it is to make sure that family is safe. You know it’s education of kids, their future, that they are in a place where I can be mentally secure that, even if I am not here for a few months, that they will be safe. Leaving them behind in Geneva was, other than family separation and not being at home every evening, being with the kids, I may be a very senior UNHCR staff but I’m a very silly family member. I joke with them, I laugh with them, I do all sorts, what any father would do. The dad jokes which are which always go bad but I do all that stuff, and that’s what keeps the family together. So that was one area which was that I’ll miss that – time goes very fast I’ve already been out there now for two and a half years plus in Syria, and my son who is doing his International Baccalaureate (I.B.) so I missed the last two and a half years with him which were quite important. So that is something that you miss. So that that process goes through your mind that you will be missing all that.
MF: Does it feel like a sacrifice?
SM: You don’t think you’re making a sacrifice. It’s not intentional that I’m sacrificing, it happens because you know that this is something that will happen. Because when you’re away from family for that long. And it was a family decision in the end that I had to sit down with all my kids and my wife and we discussed how important it is and to convince them there was this professional side of it that it’s important because they have been seeing Syria on the news for a long time and I used to tell them these are my colleagues working out there. They know that I’m a humanitarian. Their mother is UNHCR staff member. And they know what it means to be humanitarian. And when it was family discussion around dinner tables to see what do you think if I go out there and if there’s an opportunity for me to be there. It wasn’t a difficult decision in the end. They knew that they will now. I cook at home dinners and some special meals that are related to me that that they’ll miss those and they’ll have to start learning how to cook and they’ll start doing their own things now. But it was easier for them to say ‘Baba go and do what you have to do’. So it’s that was more difficult. Professionally I knew the organization I know the organization well I knew the operations very well. But I think the most difficult decision was to get the family angle sorted out first and then once this is secured then I know that in the back of my mind I’m secure that family’s OK and I can focus full time on that on that operations.
MF: So what does your son who’s just now graduating from high school what does he think of your being in Syria?
SM: He’s extremely proud of what I’m doing. Every time there is an opportunity for me to come back, I go and pick him up from school and it’s he’s a teenager he’s 17 turning 18 now. And normally teenagers it’s a bit you know keeping parents away. But in my case he takes me in to his library come and meet my students, friends and introduces me to them. Baba is back and he’s in Syria and then he tries for me to tell them something about Syria. Something that is happening unique. So he proudly presents his Dad as working in Syria, helping people. And he writes on his on his Facebook that he’s doing what he does best.
MF: So have you had any conversations with your children about their fears? They must be worried about you being in a place that’s a war zone.
SM: They are worried. So it’s the whole family, extended family. But children more so. Whenever something happens is the first thing is that I have to communicate very quickly to my wife so she knows what has happened. So that when she gets to hear the news that then it doesn’t come out because there’s bombing in Damascus or shelling in Damascus, or I’m out there and I’m not able to communicate because there’s no telephone lines or internet access. Then she knows and she keeps kids informed. When I come out on my R&Rs (rest and recuperation) But the first few times, dinner discussions were very Syria focused. So what did you see Baba? What did you hear? How is are schools, children.
MF: When you get moved, I get moved.
SM: So they wanted to see you wanted to hear how people are living out there, teenagers and how people go to school and so I used to tell them these stories which then my wife advised me not to go into details because that’s affecting them as well because these stories are not easy to tell. And they have an impact because they then started absorbing the pain too much. So we started having very general conversations about how things are changing in Syria and they watch news every time I’m out there on the news they listen. But then they very quickly my life has made some kind of an arrangement that she gets together all of them huddled round and see we have a discussion and we tell you you know he’s fine and his staff are fine and these bombings are happening but they’re happening away from their places he’s looking into this so that they remain informed. I think they know Homs, Aleppo and Daraya, Moadamiya and Madaya they know because they’ve heard all about all of it. We have a kind of a conversation which is difficult for them but I know when I come out and they see I’m fine so they’re beginning to have more trust and faith that, yes it’s dangerous, but they’re being looked after and they’re safe.
MF: You are indeed you know physically fine but you know I just saw just now when I you were about to talk about the stories you were telling your kids that you got very emotional because of the stories that you have to absorb. The stories that you hear from people who are affected. I remember when you first came out of Madaya which was a besieged town where people were literally starving, and tell me about how these stories affect you personally.
SM: I think big time. We see pain we see suffering and there’s a limit to how much one can absorb. And as a leader you have to stay strong. We have to keep our minds clear. Because if I’m emotionally involved to a point then it starts impacting the decision-making process. It’s so easy that that gap can happen that can happen. As a human being you have to take it in. You have to absorb it. And the more we discuss and talk about it amongst ourselves, we do that, we break down sometimes so it’s only normal, but amongst ourselves then it’s a peer support group that is amongst us that we do that. But then as leaders you have to then have a clear mind and come out and take the next step. There are certain images that will stay with us — stay with me for a very long time. Because those are the images that cannot be forgotten overnight. And there’s a difficult images that because there’s death, there’s destruction there is starvation there is pain. You see kids, recently in Douma pale skin and rashes on their skin, they have come out from basements and haven’t seen sun for days, for example. These are some of the difficult moments that one goes through that will stay with us.
MF: I want to talk about Madaya. This is a town in Syria. This is very close to the Lebanese border. It was besieged for a long time and you went in there as one of the first in the relief effort when finally there was an opening. Can you just tell me what you saw and what you witnessed there?
SM: Difficult to describe what we saw. It was very difficult besiegement. I’ve seen in Somalia starving kids I’ve seen because the conflict brings issues like that, but Madaya was children starving kids, injured people in hospitals makeshift hospitals not enough beds. Blood stained floors, starving elderly people who had chronic diseases. There was no medicines. The only doctor that I came across himself had a shrapnel in his leg and there were no antibiotics. So the few that he managed to get even those were not working on him because he didn’t have enough food intake that could help make his body strong. It was extremely cold this was winter when we went in. And I remember I had several layers on me and I was still cold and they were living in dark no light rooms with no heating, nothing. Shivering kids and we were there for several hours inside offloading trucks, loads of blankets and food and medicines whatever we were able to bring in, and while we were parked in there of course they came to our cars and would knock at our cars and very quietly ask for something because the pride was there. They didn’t want to beg for anything. Fortunately that is behind us now because that’s now an open area. Now we regularly visit that area. We started bringing relief and assistance and supplies and the place is gradually coming back to some kind of normal. I take photos with my phone when I go out. It’s hard to look back at some of these photos. For that particular mission I had to delete all of them because I couldn’t stand even going back to them.
MF: You showed me one of those photos when you came out and it was of a family and the mother instructed the kids to lift their shirts to show you, what?
SF: Well it was starving kids. You could see their ribs. You could see swollen bellies, you could see that they haven’t eaten meals for days. It’s one meal a day and that’s also usually soup whatever they can get.
MF: What did they want you to do with that photograph?
SM: They wanted us to go and tell the world that this is what they’re going through. Even the elders got us together and say we didn’t deserve this. We didn’t have to go through this.
MF: So you became a way there their messenger and you took to Twitter. You went to the media.
SM: We have to speak out. We have to talk about what’s happening in there. This is not to politicize it. We are humanitarians, this is not the angle that I’m taking. I’m seeing women, children, elderly, boys, girls suffering in there. And it’s my duty to make sure that we talk about it and then do something about it because yes a went in, and yes I saw and we brought food. My worry was then what next now? Because we brought in food for the next 14 days basically ration would have lasted for the whole [group]. And then the moment we came out, what we saw, we used that to say next convoy start getting ready now. Start getting the approvals, start getting the permission to go back in and bring more assistance. And that was the pressure as we wanted to build again into the system that you give food once doesn’t mean that you don’t eat for the next several weeks. You need food on daily basis. A normal kid would like to eat three four times a day. And these kids were eating once a day even if that they’re lucky they get they get a meal. How long can you survive in those kind of situations?
MF: One place that has really left its mark on Sajjad is the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta – very close to Damascus. Until recently it was held by rebels, but the battle for control of the region lasted 5 long years – trapping tens of thousands of people. There was little food and no medicine, but the fierce fighting made it very difficult for UNHCR to get access and deliver aid. It was a situation that Sajjad found hard to bear.
SM: When shelling and bombing happens I can see it from my window. It’s that close. And in Damascus where we are based we have stockpiles of almost every item that is required for that emergency. World Food Programme (WFP) has food warehouses, we have blankets and tents and kitchen sets and undergarments for winter and sleeping bags and elderly’s jackets and stuff. And UNICEF has supplies for children for schools. We all are equipped sitting in there. And the frustration is that we are so close yet we are not able to bring assistance in because the decision is not then humanitarian decision – we wait for approvals and that’s a very complicated process that’s tied to so many other political issues which you know slows us down.
But eventually, when we did go in, so there is one side which is outside, but there also are armed opposition groups inside including Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS in Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, so that list goes on. So when we go in we go unarmed and we want to make sure that everyone knows that we’re coming in. We are coming in, this is the route we are taking these are the coordinates that we’re going to be on. And these are the supplies that we’re bringing the number of trucks we’ll be in at this time, we’ll be out at this time. Please pause. Let the guns fall silent during this period. But this is also not respected all the time. And this last time when we went into Douma eventually with some 48 trucks of food and everything else and while we were in there late at night around 9, 10 total darkness we were still offloading trucks there was shelling happening around us. We are sitting like I’m sitting with you now in a room and the building was shaking when these bombs were happening and our local counterparts looked at us all the time and smiled and said don’t worry, this is not here, this is three neighborhoods down. It’s so close and they’re so used to it. But we had to eventually rush out because we were instructed we were in contact with Geneva, with New York with the coalition, so 10:00pm we finally exit in total darkness. 48 trucks lights totally switched off. About 14 land cruisers lights switched off telephones switched off because we didn’t want anyone to see the coordinates where we are or that we are not become a target. And we exited very slowly carefully into government controlled territories and the shells rockets landed while we were about at the checkpoint. So when we came out still at least relieved that we have brought some assistance and we have seen what’s happening inside, but when we came out we realized that we brought 14 truckloads unloaded so there were still full of supplies because we had to exit and we could not stay any longer inside there because we were risking ourselves and risking others. So that’s the kind of situation, then frustration builds up, planning, risk-taking, ourselves, our staff, volunteers who are out there. We have seen hungry people, we have seen kids who are in need of assistance. And then we are in after all these clearances and difficult procedures and we get in there and we start offloading and then these things happen and then we have to come out with loaded trucks. Nothing can be more frustrating than that. We went back several days later and offloaded the remaining stuff but then in the meantime more kids were hungry and more families needed more assistance and more medicine.
MF: You went into one basement and where many families and were taking shelter. What did you see.
SM: Well, overcrowding. The size of this room is a luxury where we’re sitting having this discussion. These are basements which were converted into shelters because anything above the ground could be hit and at night there’s not enough leg room for people to stretch so children were allowed to sleep and the grown ups in elders would sit because there’s not enough space or they sit in corridors. No ventilation because it’s in basement. There’s no sanitation facilities around. Difficult to describe even because I could still feel that in my in my mind it comes.
MF: It’s something that you probably had never seen before?
SM: No I did not see this before and we had heard about that. We have discussed about that. But to physically see that, that was you know strong smell, not enough cleaning around but this people also not enough water to shower and clean themselves up. And only kids sleeping and elderly cannot because there’s no leg room. And it was getting overcrowded because more displaced were coming in into those those areas.
MF: Sajjad how do you look after yourself after you’ve seen something like that?
SM: It’s not me alone who was going through this I think there’s strong camaraderie amongst colleagues. We come out, we discuss, we talk, we vent it out. But then also there is this relief that you eventually do bring something back to these people because it’s ours is seeing it and having that pain they are going through this pain. They’re living there, their physically going through that pain. I see that, I smell that, I hear it, and those memories stay with me and my problem is slightly different than theirs. I think the first and the most important thing is that the relief that we were able to go and see and be able to help them and bring assistance back to them so that that’s a huge mental relief that that happens. Then you have to manage your stress as an individual because people handle things differently. As a leader people also expect you to be stronger and they have to come to me to talk and discuss and vent it out so there’s not only these issues but countless other issues. So you have to have that balance that you remain on solid ground that you maintain your mental strength and courage. It’s fine to say it and reflect and cry if need be, it’s OK. But go to the gym, I read a lot. I watch football games I love football games, for example. Chelsea is in the English Premier League is one that I very closely watch. And then obviously Barcelona and Real Madrid and Juventus. And then read. Whatever keeps you occupied and get your mind off knowing that it’s not hiding. You have to reflect, you still have to digest that information you have to do something about it. Coming back for your breaks, great deal of help. I come back and I get into home, mowing the lawn, cooking food for them, kitchen stuff and things that needs to be fixed in the house so that keeps my mind away from and then I get reenergized then I can go back in. Various ways of doing that.
MF: What kind of food do you cook?
SM: It’s a lot of Pakistani food. They now have dishes that are very special which are related to my way of cooking but they know that it’s never consistent. Spices change all the time. When they ask me Baba cook chicken I said which one? The one you cooked the other day. But we don’t know what you put in and so I said okay I’m cooking it today but you will tell me if it was like the other day or it’s something different. So experimentation and all the rest. But yeah it’s fun around family and then then that helps a lot.
MF: Tell me, Sajjad, these days, what keeps you awake at night?
SM: I’ve seen many difficult places. I’ve obviously UNHCR’s career I’ve done, like many of my colleagues, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo these are some of the big emergencies that we’ve gone through. But what I’m seeing in Syria somehow is the situation that is not getting to any kind of peace. Knowing that the peace can be achieved. But it’s become such a difficult thing that it’s painful to see that that has become a place for so many international players to meddle in, it’s become sort of a power play there. And the international diplomacy. what international diplomacy I see is defining diplomacy in his new form. In a form which is taking us back, not taking us forward. And when I see all of this happening at the international level and then I see the pain in Madaya and Darayya and other places, I get worried that we may not have seen the end of this crisis in Syria. That it has become even more complicated to find a solution. What keeps me awake is my staff that they will perhaps suffer more than what they’ve suffered so far. Those Syrians that have gone through this may have to go through more pain and more suffering. And it’s already in its eighth year. It has to stop. It has to stop somewhere. We’ve been saying enough is enough but even enough for Syria has a new definition. What is that enough? And these thoughts make me angry, make me sad because at the end of the day I see people dying in Syria. People are losing their lives in Syria. And that is not factored in and I’m sure that my colleagues who are working in Iraq in Libya and elsewhere, they feel the same. Where are we heading? It’s 2018 it’s not we are not talking about 1885 or anything. These conflicts need to be resolved differently than with brutal force.
MF: Sajjad, thank you so much for speaking to us for this podcast. All the best for your work and I hope you and your colleagues stay safe and that there’s soon a peaceful solution somehow for the Syria conflict.
SM: Thank you Melissa, thank you very much.