The United Nations has regained access to war-ravaged east Aleppo in Syria and is focusing on delivering immediate services, with an eye to the long-term reconstruction work that lies ahead if the cease-fire holds steady.
“Nothing could prepare us for what we saw inside there. The destruction is at a level that is hard to imagine,” Sajjad Malik, the acting resident coordinator for the United Nations refugee agency for Syria said via phone during a press briefing Wednesday. He spoke from Aleppo, where he has been based since Jan. 1.
But among all of the destruction and rubble of toppled schools, stores and homes, “we can see children coming out and playing …There was some sense and optimism and hope, because the guns had fallen silent,” Malik said.
He noted that people had been coming forward to ask for support in enrolling their children in school — a task that will take some time. Additional challenges include reuniting separated families and helping people confront and process the psychological trauma they have experienced after years of conflict.
“People are beginning to come back … they are asking for the basics. They are asking for their children to be registered in schools. We need to focus on this optimism for the longer term… the destruction is enormous,” he said.
Malik spoke from Aleppo, where he was been working alongside 106 U.N. staff representing many U.N. agencies, including UNICEF, U.N. Habitat, the World Health Organization, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After Syrian state forces fully recaptured Aleppo last month, the government and rebels signed a cease-fire deal — the third of 2016 — hatched by Turkey and Russia. The cease-fire led to the evacuation of more than 34,000 people from the enclave, including civilians and rebel fighters at the end of December, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. This followed months of stalled — and blocked — efforts by humanitarian workers to enter east Aleppo.
Aleppo’s population remains in flux, but now is estimated at about 1.5 million people, including 400,000 internally displaced persons. More IDPs are expected to return to their homes as long as the situation continues to stabilize, according to OCHA. Aleppo’s population was approximately 4 million before the Syrian conflict first reached the city — once the country’s largest business hub — in 2012, as per U.N. estimates. Other sources place its population at about 2 million around that time.
Now, thousands of people — 2,200 families have come back to one housing district alone in Aleppo within the last few days — are returning to the formerly besieged city, Malik said.
The U.N.’s work now is focused on addressing people’s “immediate and urgent needs,” Malik explained during the press briefing, and helping them stay healthy, safe and warm during the cold winter.
Since last month, more than 261,000 people have received aid in the form of blankets, mattresses, insulation kits, sleeping bags and other supplies.
The U.N. is providing hot meals twice a day to 20,000 people, and serving baked bread to 40,000 people.
It is also working, with the support of 12 mobile health teams, to distribute 70 tons of medical supplies and provide other services and tens of thousands of people have received hygiene kits, according to UNHCR. So far, 1,381 wounded and ill have been referred to public hospitals and safe water access has been restored for 1.1 million people.
Still, the U.N. only has access to about 400,000 of the 1.5 million people estimated to live in Aleppo right now and the outstanding aid work appears immense, ranging from the clearing of debris in east Aleppo to the continued revitalization of health facilities.
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