There are not many unsung heroes in the Syrian war, but Khaled Erksoussi and his 9,000 volunteers have got to be among them.
Convoying food and medical aid across the front lines of this tragic conflict, arguing and cajoling and pleading and negotiating their way between enemies must place you somewhere near sainthood.
They even exchange detainees and dead bodies between the government and the rebels – – a remarkable task which shows just how many unofficial ceasefires must exist in this civil war.
Khaled Erksoussi doesn’t call it a civil war, of course. For him there is only “the crisis”. The Secretary General of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) in Damascus doesn’t mince his words about the problems he faces; the arguments with the Free Syria Army and the al-Nusrah rebels, the failure of government mukhabarat intelligence officers to understand that Sarc must work on both sides of the front lines, the seven Red Crescent volunteers still imprisoned by the mukhabarat.
“We are in a unique situation,” Mr Erksoussi says. “By law, you are the auxiliary of the armed forces. But we can’t be the auxiliary of the armed forces because the conflict involves them. We felt we would be of more benefit if we stayed in the middle and offered assistance to all sides in a neutral and impartial way. This has proved to be very difficult. People say: ‘You are either with us or against us.’ And this applies to both sides. We enforced our code of conduct on all our 500 employees and our 9,000 volunteers. We tell them: ‘You mustn’t act on your feelings – only by our seven principles.’”
Humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, unity, voluntary service, universality. Quite a mouthful. To the government forces who suggest that Sarc is helping the rebel side, Erksoussi’s argument is simple. “If we don’t get aid in there, they will get it from across the border in Turkey.” But aware that the opposition would also like to get its hands on the aid, Erksoussi and his colleagues deliver only to their own local offices in the villages and towns of the north.
He was one of the Red Crescent men and women who managed to retrieve the bodies of the journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik from Homs last year after they were killed by Syrian army fire. “We entered Baba Amr. The army dug up the graves and took the journalists’ bodies to the military hospital. We took them from there back to the Damascus military hospital. Their bodies were whole. It was our duty to do this. Some of the opposition areas in Damascus, we take aid to the people. We pick a time to negotiate when there is no fierce fighting.
“We even help both sides in the retrieval of bodies and detainees. We have helped in these exchanges a lot of times but we are not involved in the negotiations,” Erksoussi says.
Nor are the dangers impersonal. Forty-three-year old Erksoussi’s own 25-year-old wife Nuha is a Sarc volunteer. “I had to dispatch her on a humanitarian mission at the beginning of the crisis,” Erksoussi says. “I sent her to Jabor, Harasta, to parts of Deraya.” All three are battlefronts and you can see the relief on the man’s face when he says that the couple now have a child and so Nuha stays at home. “The Red Crescent is filled with love,” he says. “If you don’t love each other, you can’t give love to others.”
Talking to both sides has its own problems. In Homs, a rebel fighter noticed that the convoy contained volunteers from the capital. “You are from Damascus,” the man said. “Why don’t you support the revolution?” When government security forces found a Red Crescent food basket in the hands of the FSA, Erkssousi tried to explain the organisation’s work. “A food parcel is good for one month – I can’t stay till the people it’s given to eat it. But a food basket is not a weapon.”
Firas al-Nakib took the last convoy across the front lines and found himself talking to a “free army” officer who claimed that Sarc was under government control. “He didn’t trust us,” al-Nakib says. “But when he saw our warehouse in the opposition area and saw a lot of people going there for aid, he started to change his mind.”
Erksoussi is quite blunt about it. Our interest is the people in need. Just that. We don’t ask people if they love the government. Sometimes we retrieve military personnel. Soldiers wounded in opposition areas – they are brought to us and we bring them here to Damascus. The army likes us most of the time.” Not always so, it seems, the mukhabarat. Erksoussi says, “They are suspicious – maybe it is their right to be suspicious.”
But he has excellent advice to all his volunteers which might apply to all NGOs, indeed to journalists as well. “I tell our volunteers: ‘You are all educated – so when you have a fight with a policeman who only has an elementary education and you are arrogant, this is your fault. Don’t argue. Remember the other side has no chain of command while some of the [government] soldiers have had humanitarian law training. If you don’t like the person at the checkpoint, you can ask who is in command. You can’t do this with security men and with the other side. If you get into an argument, you can be taken from your car and beaten with an AK-47.’”
Or worse. The Red Crescent has lost 18 volunteers to the war, the last one killed in one of its own warehouses in Aleppo last week when the building was hit by a mortar.