‘Let me take you to east Aleppo … in a deep basement, huddled with your children and elderly parents, the stench of urine and the vomit caused by unrelieved fear never leaving your nostrils, waiting for the bunker-busting bomb you know may kill you in this, the only sanctuary left to you, but like the one that took your neighbour and their house out last night; or scrabbling with your bare hands in the street above to reach under concrete rubble, lethal steel reinforcing bars jutting at you as you hysterically try to reach your young child screaming unseen in the dust and dirt below your feet, you choking to catch your breath in the toxic dust and the smell of gas ever-ready to ignite and explode over you.’
These are not my words; they are the words of one of the United Nations’ most senior officials, Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and its top emergency relief coordinator. He is a former Conservative MP and was a minister in the Department for International Development from 2010 to 2012. Not a man, in other words, who is prone to hysterical and exaggerated outbursts. (You can read the full text of his speech here. It's worth it.)
They are also the words of a man who is, as he told the UN security council on Wednesday, ‘incandescent with rage’. And they were aimed, above all, at Russia, whose UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, reacted with disgraceful insouciance by suggesting that O’Brien should leave his comments ‘for the novel you’re going to write some day.’
If only it were fiction. And how obscene that a senior Russian diplomat should suggest that it is. Here is more from O’Brien’s description of life in east Aleppo; and it is not fiction: ‘Bombings take place in plain sight, night and day, day in and day out. Hospitals destroyed, doctors killed. Schools destroyed, children denied education. Water stations destroyed, families cowering in basements. Peoples’ lives destroyed and Syria itself destroyed. And it is under our collective watch. And it need not be like this – this is not inevitable; it is not an accident – it is the deliberate actions of one set of powerful human beings on another set of impotent, innocent human beings.’
The Russians, whose indiscriminate bombing raids in support of Syrian government forces are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties (far greater, for example, than those inflicted by the Islamic State group and their allies), have been dropping leaflets over civilian areas of east Aleppo. O’Brien quoted what they say: ‘This is your last hope … Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated … You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.’
Ponder those words in all their stark cruelty: ‘Everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom.’ Their cruelty lies in the fact that they are true; as O’Brien himself pointed out, it need not be like this – it is not inevitable, nor is it an accident. The suffering of the people of Aleppo is the result of a deliberate policy, deliberately carried out.
And it is not only the people in the east of the city, under siege by government forces, who are the victims. As befits a UN official, O’Brien also drew attention to attacks by rebel groups on the other side of town: over the past month, rebels fired ‘more than 184 mortars and other projectiles into western Aleppo, reportedly killing at least 100 people, including 17 women and 22 children, and injuring 533 persons.’
So how can this unconscionable tragedy be stopped? Amid all the glib talk of no-fly zones, few commentators are prepared to spell out what would be the consequence of shooting down Russian warplanes. Impose more sanctions on Russia? Does anyone really think that would stop them?
Too often, the world looks the other way when thousands of people are being slaughtered: Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. But to say something is difficult is not sufficient, and to turn away is immoral.
Stephen O’Brien deserves the highest praise for pointing the finger directly where it needs to be pointed: at the governments represented on the UN security council. He looked them in the eye and he gave it to them straight: action must be taken and the violence must be stopped.
‘It is within your power to do it. If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this Council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.’