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Risks Increase For Humanitarian Aid Workers In Syria


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. The civil war in Syria has entered its third year, and the country just went through its deadliest month so far.

INSKEEP: More than 6,000 people were killed in the month of March. That number comes from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It's an anti-government activist group, based in Britain, which has a network of sources inside Syria.

GREENE: All the violence has Syrians fleeing to safer areas inside the country, or across the border. And one of the groups helping them is the United Nations World Food Program.

MUHANNAD HADI: This month, actually, we plan to give food to 2.5 million people inside Syria. This is, by the way, four times the population of Washington, D.C.

GREENE: That's Muhannad Hadi, the World Food Program's emergency coordinator for Syria. He is in Washington, meeting with members of Congress, and he dropped by our studios. Hadi has been working in Syria since before the conflict began, and he says it is becoming increasingly difficult to get food to those in need.

HADI: People keep on moving from one place to the other. We cross lines in Syria; you go through government-controlled, non-government-controlled areas sometimes. It's very difficult. It gets to a stage where really, it's high risk for us.

GREENE: With different groups controlling different parts of the countris - the government in control of parts; more in control of - parts, less in others - I mean, how are these areas different? Where is it easier to reach people; where is it much more difficult?

HADI: I have to be frank with you - it's difficult everywhere. I'll give you an example. I mean, I went to Homs many times. I traveled to Homs.

GREENE: And this is a city in the northwest that has seen a lot of violence, in the back-and-forth you're talking about.

HADI: Homs is destroyed. It's heartbreaking to see Homs, especially for somebody like me. I've been in Syria for four years. I've visited Homs many, many times - for work, and for tourism - before. Now, I go back to Homs; it's a totally different town. I don't even recognize it. One time I visited, it was under the control of the Free Syrian Army. A few weeks later, I went back; it was under the control of the government. Now, I just heard, it's the Free Syrian Army again. It's very difficult. There are no clear lines, as people sometimes think. There are some areas, sometimes you just cannot - you can't reach. We have to take calculated risks and sometimes, the risks are far, far more than we can accept.

GREENE: Take me into one of those considerations - when you had to make a difficult decision about whether it was worth the risk, or not, to keep going one day.

HADI: I'll describe to you a day in Damascus, when we go for monitoring or distribution. The team wakes up in the morning. The convoy leaves with the food, and we have our monitors - or myself - trying to go to the field and make sure that the food goes to the right people. I leave in armored vehicles. I have to get in two armored vehicles - at least - because we have to be a group of us. We wear flak jackets. We have certain communication equipment that we maintain, equipment with each other and with the office in Damascus. You can be at the wrong place at the wrong time and actually, I think five times so far, we've been shot at.

GREENE: Who's shooting at you?

HADI: It's not important, really, who's shooting at us. We honestly don't know. I mean, for us it doesn't make any difference who is shooting at us. I personally don't believe we are a direct target, but those are the calculated risks that I'm talking about. You know, when you're going somewhere, and you see a lot of military activities happening, then you decide - do I go there today, or do I come back tomorrow?

GREENE: The situation that you've described - how does this conflict compare to other conflict zones that you've worked in, in your career?

HADI: I've been working for the World Food Program for more than 20 years. I've worked in many emergencies. Each emergency, of course, is unique. But it's not an earthquake, you know, it's not a flood.

GREENE: What makes it unique?

HADI: It's a country that is being destroyed. It's difficult. It's heartbreaking, really.

GREENE: We have so many people displaced in the country. We have hundreds of thousands of refugees outside the country. Do you have confidence that these people will get home, at some point?

HADI: This is a very difficult question. At the beginning, people - the refugees - used to leave Syria because they were running for security reasons - they couldn't stay at home. Now when I talk to the refugees, a lot of them are leaving Syria to neighboring countries because they don't have food, water, electricity, medical services. This is really, a very worrying question to us. I mean, we do hope that the refugees go back to Syria as soon as possible but right now, it's really impossible for people to go back home.

GREENE: Muhannad Hadi is the emergency coordinator for Syria, for the World Food Program. Thank you so much for stopping by and talking to us.

HADI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.