By Elise Harris
Vatican City - As the number of civilian victims in Syria's bloody civil war continues to climb, Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio in Syria, said the situation is “hell on earth,” especially for vulnerable children.
Referring to a statement recently made by the regional director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Zenari said Syria is currently “one of the most dangerous places for children.”
“It's terrible. I always say, it's a massacre of the innocents,” he said, and recalled how a few years ago near Damascus, where the nunciature is located, he met a 10-year-old girl who had both of her legs amputated after being hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell.
He recalled another story of a 15-year-old girl who was on her way back from school with a friend when a splinter from an explosion tore through her cheek and up through her head, killing her instantly. There is “so much suffering,” Zenari said, adding that Pope Francis' Christmas message for 2017 was “one of the most touching for me,” because it was entirely dedicated to the suffering of children.
From a humanitarian perspective, the situation is “out of control,” he said, and one could write “a book of lamentations” on the Syrian crisis alone. Zenari, who has served as apostolic nuncio since 2008 and was named a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, spoke at a March 9 event for the “Open Hospitals” project, developed by the AVSI organization in 2016 in partnership with the Gemelli Foundation and the pontifical charity branch “Cor Unum.”
The project aims to provide medical care for those living in poverty and supports the activities of four non-profit hospitals in Syria.
Since the beginning of the country's civil war in 2011, more than 13.5 million Syrians, including 6 million children, have been affected by a dire humanitarian crisis, with the majority of the population living in situations of food insecurity and without access to basic supplies.
According to U.N. estimates, some 11.5 million people, 40 percent of whom are children, do not have access to adequate medical care. Hospitals have routinely been targeted in the fighting, and since the beginning of the war, nearly two-thirds of Syria's medical staff have fled the country. With money needed to pay for staff, general management, monthly bills, and the renewal of old facilities, patients increasingly file into the few hospitals that are left with both routine healthcare needs and war injuries, making the financial strain near crippling.
As of November 2017, roughly one million euros (nearly $1.2 million) had already been raised by the Open Hospitals project to support the four hospitals with whom they partner.
In his speech for the March 9 event, Cardinal Zenari showed a 2-minute video portraying images of buildings destroyed by shelling and people injured in bombings, many of them small children with bloody face, covered in dust.
The social fabric of society is being “attacked,” he said, and “the deep wounds, above all in these children, are worse than what is seen.” The number of civilian victims of the war has drastically increased in recent weeks, after Russian-backed Syrian forces on Feb. 18 launched a series of deadly airstrikes and artillery fire on besieged Easter Ghouta enclave, which sits just northeast of Damascus.
Home to some 400,000 people, Eastern Ghouta is the last rebel-held area east of Damascus and has been a target of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces since 2013 in a bid to drive the rebels out. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 900 civilians have died so far in the fighting. Although the U.N. Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire go into effect Feb. 24, fighting has continued, and efforts to get humanitarian aid into areas where citizens are trapped were recently halted due to fear of chemical attacks.
Cardinal Zenari said that of all the world disasters he's witnessed, “I have never seen so much violence as in Syria,” and likened the situation to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At times, Zenari said he asks himself, “Does the Lord not see this?” However, he said he is consoled when he thinks of the Jesus' own suffering and death, because “Jesus in his passion sweat blood, from his whole body...(the) blood of the entire Church, the blood of the martyrs.”
“We are in the eighth year of the Passion” in Syria, he said. He lamented the fact that no agreements have yet been reached to put an end to the violence, saying that so far the discussions either fail to yield a deal, or a deal is made but falls apart.
The cardinal also pointed to the millions who have fled Syria and are now living in other countries, including a high number of youth. Because of this, he said, Syria is rapidly becoming “a society without youth, a Church without youth.”
He closed his hour-long address with an appeal for prayer, asking attendees to pray for “our dear friends, brothers and sisters in Syria.”