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U.N. Official 'Absolutely Horrified' With Conditions In Syria

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Absolutely horrified, those were the words that Stephen O'Brien used this week to describe his reaction to seeing the conditions of life in Syria, which is now four years into a civil war. Mr. O'Brien, a former member of the British Parliament, made his first trip to Syria after becoming the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations. Stephen O'Brien joins us now on the line from New York. Mr. O'Brien, thanks very much for being with us.

STEPHEN O'BRIEN: Hello.

SIMON: What did you see that staggered you so?

O'BRIEN: Well, in Syria, the country has been clearly ripped apart. Physically, yes, you can see lots of examples of that and ripped apart in terms of people. And our job is to make sure that we have access with the incredibly brave and persistent humanitarian workers, who are determined to get life-saving aid through to people who are caught up in this terrible conflict.

SIMON: And is the humanitarian aid getting in?

O'BRIEN: Well, there is some, amazingly, given how difficult it is and how uncooperative the parties are. I went up to the old city in Homs, where every building was absolutely shattered. And behind every empty area where they'd been a window, you just had to think, for only a moment. And there have been lives behind those windows. And these are lives broken apart and shattered. And it's our job to give health care, water, food, making sure that the children do get the chance to get some schooling. We now have millions of children in Syria who simply are not at school, and this will be a lost generation whatever happens.

SIMON: Yeah, some of the statistics, which, I guess, we report now and then, a quarter of a million people have died, more than a million injured. Purportedly, more than half of the 22 million people who once resided in the country have been displaced, which raises the question, do you assign one side or one faction or another more blame than any other for what's happened?

O'BRIEN: In a sense, it's not my job as the humanitarian to attribute blame. Basically, all parties in this dispute are in breach of international humanitarian law. And, of course, there are so many levels and layers. There are so many parties. It makes it very difficult to find a political solution. And as always, it's the humanitarians who have to pick up the pieces when there's been a failure of politics. My jobs are very clear. I have to do my very best, irrespective who I talk to, to get the access for the humanitarian aid workers to get in with the necessary life-saving aid. But there is another problem. I can't do that unless donor nations and individuals - and here in America, just the same as everywhere else, already, many, many people are being supremely generous... But I'm afraid the scale of what we are facing is so immense. It's so persistent, and it's so difficult in conflict. We have to keep on asking for countries and people to step up and to give more resources so that the funding to the U.N. agencies and to the international and national NGOs can carry on this incredibly brave work.

SIMON: Do you have any concern in your present position, Mr. O'Brien, that the longer a crisis situation continues - and this is the fourth year of war for Syria - people in a peculiar way begin to accept it, almost overlook it, forget about it?

O'BRIEN: Well, in many ways, I think some people use the word fatigue. I think it's a word that's overused. I think most people do feel deeply upset and deeply offended by the continuing callous disregard for life in this dispute, where the warring parties seem to have no sense of responsibility for the people they're meant to represent. What matters, it seems to me, is that we continue to get to the facts, to raise the profile and raise the sensitivity of this to all right-thinking people. Then we can call on them to help support us in giving the humanitarian support that they would expect if they had suddenly found themselves caught up in the same situation.

SIMON: Stephen O'Brien, who is the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, thanks so much for being with us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.