In Syrian War, Numbers Can Be Numbing But We Desperately Need Them

Mohamad Katoub, a former doctor who escaped from eastern Ghouta, always felt that Syria’s daily toll of deaths and casualties are more than just numbers – until he saw the power those statistics had. Here, he explains why he changed his mind.

Bombed hospital in the Syrian village of Awaijel on Nov. 15
Bombed hospital in the Syrian village of Awaijel on Nov. 15
Mohamad Katoub


GAZIANTEP — On Feb. 15, 2014, the medical staff in the Syrian region of eastern Ghouta, my home, decided to close the unit housing incubators for premature babies because the hospital ran out of fuel for the electricity generators. The siege made my neighborhood inaccessible and deprived the hospital of supplies. Incubators need round-the-clock electricity and, at the time, we were hardly able to save enough fuel for critical cases. I took part in making that decision, and I will never forgive myself. A little girl died that night. She was two days old.

Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by pro-government forces since early 2013. Between November and December of that year, 33 children died because of the lack of fuel and medical supplies. The inaction of Damascus-based humanitarian organizations since then has only compounded this suffering. Three U.N. and partner agency convoys delivered supplies to our area in 2014, but each of them carried few items of value and they failed to stop the siege-related deaths.

I am now based in Gaziantep, Turkey, and work for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a medical relief organization. I can attest that being a beneficiary of aid in Syria is completely different from working from outside to deliver supplies. Working in a hospital whose services are needed at all times is different from working to send supplies, fuel and salaries to that hospital. Advocating for protecting health workers in Syria is completely different from defending your own life under barrel bombs.

When I was living in besieged eastern Ghouta, I did not read the humanitarian agencies' frequent reports on the latest aid delivery statistics. I was concerned with different numbers — the hospital's last liter of serum, the last liter of fuel, the last orthopedic external fixation.

I arrived in Gaziantep in June 2014, determined to continue supporting Syrian hospitals from the outside. I explored the "humanitarian community" and tried to learn the "humanitarian language." At first, I ignored statistics. Whenever I heard someone talk about Syrians as numbers, I told them, "We are not numbers. Every single casualty is a family member: a father, a brother, a sister or a son."

Numbers tell the story of our failure as humanitarian activists.

Yet, slowly, I became aware of the importance of numbers. Numbers tell the story of our failure as humanitarian activists. Numbers tell the story of how funding is dispersed. Numbers prove that donors also pay for military operations that exacerbate the crisis — much more than the amount they invest in humanitarian causes.

This is the story of Syria's failed humanitarian response, told by numbers.

According to Fueling the Fire, a March 2016 SAMS report by a group of international and Syrian NGOs on the response of the UN Security Council's permanent members to the Syria crisis:

- Syria's poverty rate was 35% before the crisis. It was 85% in 2015.

- The monthly income of a Syrian family was $600 before the war. It was just $100 in 2015.

- Syria's unemployment rate before 2011 was 8%. It was 52% in 2015.

- Life expectancy at birth in Syria was 70 years in 2011. It was 55 years in 2015.

According to the global nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, there were 382 attacks on medical facilities and 757 health workers were killed between March 2011 and June 2016. In May 2016, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to protect health workers and infrastructure in Syria, but that same month, PHR documented eight attacks on medical facilities. There were nine in June.

Every six months, the Security Council renews the resolution that enables cross-border aid deliveries. The International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a group of countries working on the crisis, created a humanitarian task force to follow up on aid deliveries in Syria. Despite these diplomatic efforts, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that in June convoys had reached only 341,400 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas — roughly half the total of delivery approvals received and much lower than OCHA's target of 1.1 million people.

Many of Syria's 18 besieged areas were left critically underserved, with convoys lacking medical aid and carrying insufficient supplies. In Madaya, a town of 40,000 people located 30 miles (45km) from the humanitarian warehouses in Damascus, help came far too late. Eighty-six people died due to siege, starvation and the long wait for permission for medical evacuations.

The majority of aid has been going to hard-to-reach areas, and the Syrian government has had significant control over who receives help, and what supplies convoys carry. The UN said in January that of the 4.6 million people in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, only 620,000 received aid in 2015.

Failure to obtain the proper permission was the most severe factor that contributed to this discrepancy: 75% of the entry requests submitted in 2015 never received a government reply, 10% were approved and another 10% were granted but not carried out.

Even after the ISSG's humanitarian task force started working, only 30% of deliveries to besieged areas were approved, and the Syrian government still had significant influence over the contents.

While there is no doubt that decision-makers are aware of what needs to be done to protect civilians and guarantee that humanitarian aid is able to reach those in need, there's little appetite in the international community to make this happen.

However, a look at the numbers in Syria's story highlights the one thing that has so far proven to be the most effective tool at decreasing suffering: accountability.

Between September 2013 and December 2015, the Security Council passed three resolutions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Despite this, 69 of 161 verified chemical attacks during the war took place in 2015. However, after the UN launched an investigation, tasked with identifying individuals, entities, groups or governments involved in the use of chemical weapons, in October 2015, SAMS reported that the number of chemical attacks dropped to seven in the past six months.

The Syrian government would think twice before blocking aid if it were to be held accountable for these actions. It would rethink the use of unconventional weapons if an international tribunal was investigating war crimes in the country. However, the current inaction of the international community encourages the government and other parties to continue to commit the same crimes.

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books on a book shelf

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

Die Welt
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