Alain Boinet: Patrice, you’ve just returned from another trip to Northeast Syria. What is the current situation and what are the main issues?
Patrice Franceschi: The situation of the Syrian Democratic Forces – an alliance of Kurds, Christians and anti-Islamist Arabs from the north and east of Syria – is more precarious than ever, unless we deny it. Since the partial abandonment of the Kurds by us Westerners in October 2019 and the subsequent Turkish invasion, the gains of the victorious military campaign against Daech between autumn 2014 and summer 2019 have largely been lost. The then-liberated and unified region – four times the size of Lebanon – has become a shifting mosaic where Russian, American, French, Syrian and Turkish forces intersect, with a growing resurgence of Daech sleeper cells. In short, a big mess, to put it bluntly, instead of a territory totally at peace, as it still was in September 2019…
The Turks are maneuvering everywhere to destabilize the region, advance their pawns and conquer as much territory as possible with the help of their Islamist auxiliaries. The latter are either Syrian mercenaries or Daech jihadists recycled under other names. The Kurds thus face a considerable number of challenges: the “water war” waged by the Turks, who regulate the dams on the Euphrates for their own benefit in order to starve the populations of northern Syria by reducing agricultural production, the regular “droning” of Kurdish civilian and military leaders whenever they move, indiscriminate bombing in the countryside by the Turkish air force, The same applies to specific civilian targets – flour mills, grain silos, power plants, schools, hospitals – an ever-tightening blockade of the tiny border crossing to Iraqi Kurdistan, to reduce the country’s economy to nothing, maneuvers by Turkish and Iranian secret services to incite the Arab tribes of the FDS to rebel, etc. .. The list goes on.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Turkish long-range artillery strike at random to terrorize the population. Now it’s a regular occurrence. Especially at night. The town of Amuda, where I regularly stay, has for the first time been deprived of street lighting by the destruction of its power station. Life is becoming very hard and uncertain for the Kurds, Christians and Arabs of the region. This undermines their unity and the confidence they have in their leaders – which is what Ankara is aiming for, as it increases its aggressiveness in proportion to our passivity.
I have also seen for myself that the Turks – and the Iranians, which is new – no longer hesitate to use their drones to bomb the Kurdish forces based in the American camps around Hassaké. This has never happened before. It should be noted that when these bombardments hit camps for displaced Kurds, Western NGOs decide to stop their work and leave the camps, which makes the situation even worse.
As far as the political stakes are concerned, they haven’t changed: the security interests of the Kurds and the West, particularly the French, are as intimately linked as ever in the face of the resurgence of the Turkish-backed Islamic State. These Islamists dream of hitting us again, and as hard as possible. At least, that’s what the hardest jihadist prisoners are saying. At least the Kurds are still willing to keep them at home. It’s up to us to increase our support for the FDS before it’s too late.
Alain Boinet: Jean-Michel Blanquer, the former Minister of Education, accompanied you. What is the significance of his presence with you in north-eastern Syria?
Patrice Franceschi : For months, I had been proposing to a number of prominent French personalities that they accompany me to Syrian Kurdistan, so that I could see the situation at first hand, and then intervene in their sphere of activity to support the Kurds. In the end, all these personalities declined, except Jean-Michel Blanquer. So the three of us left, along with Khaled Issa, the representative in France of the self-administration of northern and eastern Syria – as the region is now called… And since the former minister was going there on his own initiative, the President of the Republic entrusted him with a message of support for the FDS – which we of course passed on to the region’s political and military leaders. Let’s hope that these words will now be followed by deeds.
Alain Boinet: Kurds seem to be under threat in every country in the region. How do you interpret this? Is it a coincidence?
Patrice Franceschi: There’s no such thing as a coincidence. What the Kurds are proposing as a model of society where they have control of a territory, especially in northern Syria, is unbearable for the region’s satraps: democracy, equality between men and women, secularism, respect for minorities… all this is a nightmare for these regimes, from Damascus to Ankara and from Baghdad to Teheran. They fear contagion of this model at home, and are doing everything in their power to destroy it. What’s more, these despots are driven by an ontological contempt for the Kurds, whom they regard and treat everywhere as subhuman, so you can imagine the hatred they harbor.
Alain Boinet: Is the war between Israel and Hamas changing the regional balance? What are the consequences for the FDS? What is the new strategic challenge?
Patrice Franceschi : For the time being, there are no visible consequences. But it’s probably too early to draw any conclusions. Kurdish officials simply note that it is mainly the Iranians who are maneuvering. The Hamas attack on Israel was coordinated with the revolt against the FDS by the Arab tribes of Der-es-Zor on the Euphrates. Iranian intelligence was behind this large-scale revolt. The Kurds discovered this involvement once the revolt had been put down, thanks to the loyalty of the majority of the Arab members of the FDS.
When these same Kurdish leaders observe, moreover, that Erdogan supports Hamas after having supported the Azeris against the Armenians, they say to themselves that the outposts of democracy in the East – in their eyes: Armenia, Kurdistan, Israel – do indeed have the same enemies who are coordinating their efforts in the same timetable to make them all disappear. In their view, it’s time to forge new alliances between these three “indigenous” nations to face up to this challenge.
Alain Boinet: How would you like to conclude this interview?
Patrice Franceschi : The most important thing is to realize that these three conflicts are interconnected, that to be effective we can’t privilege one at the expense of the others, and that we need to fight on all three fronts together. This is what the Kurdish leaders think, and I can only agree with them. Of course, this battle goes beyond humanitarian action, unfortunately, and is being fought on political and military levels alone.
Writer and humanitarian
Corsican adventurer, political philosopher and French writer – winner of the 2015 Goncourt short story prize – Patrice Franceschi is also an aviator and sailor. He has always divided his life between writing and adventure. He has multiplied his land, air and sea expeditions around the world. He has also led numerous humanitarian missions in war-torn countries, from Bosnia to Somalia, lived among the indigenous peoples of the most remote regions – Papuans, Indians, Pygmies, Nilotics – and spent many years in the ranks of the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviet army. He has also been an active supporter of the Syrian Kurds on the ground since the start of their fight against the Islamic State. His novels, stories, poetry and essays are inseparable from a committed, free and tumultuous existence in which he attempts to “exhaust the field of the possible”. A reserve officer, he also belongs to the prestigious group of naval writers.
Interview with Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART, Communications Officer
Alain Boinet: Amal, can you explain for our readers what your humanitarian programs were in the Gaza Strip before October 7?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: First International Emergency started its activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, first in the North of the West Bank between 2002 and 2003, with the aim of supporting communities impacted by movement restrictions, particularly those located near the partition wall.
The aim was to support small businesses such as bakeries, carpentry and other income-generating activities in order to limit the negative consequences of the isolation of families due to the progressive fragmentation of the territory.
Little by little Première Urgence Internationale has developed its presence in several districts and has strengthened its programs in other sectors of intervention such as access to water, hygiene and sanitation as well as food security and support for agricultural activities.
In parallel, several emergency actions were carried out following the peaks of tension caused over the years in this part of the territory.
In December 2008, the war broke out in the Gaza Strip, causing numerous civilian casualties and major destruction of infrastructure. Première Urgence Internationale then decided to help the families displaced by the bombing through the distribution of hygiene kits and other essential goods such as water tanks. The organization will also supply medical consumables to various health facilities; an operation that will be renewed in 2012, 2014, 2021 and 2022 as part of successive Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.
Taking stock of all these years, it can be noted that a twofold approach is needed: to guarantee the civilian population long-term livelihoods, to prevent the negative effects of movement restrictions, but also have the capacity to deploy emergency aid on a large scale until the conflict is resolved.
In 2017, Première Urgence Internationale embarked on a rather new adventure thanks to a partnership with the British Council. The Gaza Strip contains archaeological sites dating back to the Byzantine era. Some farmers discovered remnants while cultivating their land. Among the best known sites today: the Monastery of Saint Hilarion called «Tell Um El-Amr» is the oldest and largest in Palestine. Discovered in 1997, it has been the subject of several archaeological reconnaissance campaigns, conducted under the direction of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem (EBAF). In 2012, it was inscribed on the indicative list of Palestinian heritage by UNESCO.
The First International Emergency teams will support the preservation and protection of the remains of the Saint-Hilarion site as well as the Byzantine Church of Jabālīyah, with the aim of integrating young people living in the Gaza Strip in this process of valuing the Palestinian cultural heritage, and thus opening up new perspectives and generating new vocations.
The INTIQAL program is born, this term means in Arabic «the transition» or «the transmission», words that resonate both as a challenge and as a pledge of hope for the new Palestinian generations. In 2022, the French Development Agency decided to support this project through funding that will allow the development of economic and training activities around the sites discovered over a period of 5 years.
Première Urgence Internationale was pleased to publish in 2023 the portrait of Asma, the first female archaeologist in Gaza who joined the team after studying history and archaeology. Asma was to come to Paris accompanied by 3 other young people at the Louvre Museum as part of the International Exhibition of Cultural Heritage scheduled for early November 2023. She had to present her work and promote her culture to an audience from around the world. She would have been proud to tell this trip to other young people in Gaza. We were all mobilized from the mission in Palestine to the headquarters of First International Emergency to make this moment something unforgettable.
Unfortunately, we had to review our plans…
Alain Boinet: After the Hamas attack in Israel on October 7 and following the Israeli bombing, what situation did your teams then face?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: There are several significant phases. As of October 7, all the teams in Palestine and the headquarters in the Paris region measure the gravity of the situation. It recalls the reflexes developed during the previous wars, namely an immediate confinement of the teams to protect themselves from the bombing and a psychological conditioning to tip over to a humanitarian emergency of large scale.
A crisis unit is immediately opened at the headquarters of the organization to follow the evolution of the context hour by hour and secure our teams on site.
As each time the unknown remains the duration of the bombardments which determines the intensity of the damages and the needs.
But this time, civilian casualties are on both sides, and the hostage-taking of Israeli civilians marks a major turning point in this conflict. The operation will be long and dramatic for millions of people.
The announcement by the Israeli government of a total blockade on the Gaza Strip depriving the population of water, electricity, gas and fuel, raises fears of the worst. Our teams on site and the entire population must be able to count on the stocks of water and food available without knowing how long it will take or how many days they will be able to hold out. No person, no property can enter or leave Gaza.
In previous Israeli military operations, the expatriates of the organizations had the opportunity to exit through the North through the Erez Passage. Humanitarian corridors were opened in Rafah and Kerem Shalom to allow aid to pass during the truces. This time no passage is allowed.
Some members of our teams had to leave their homes because it was heavily impacted by a bombing nearby, some were able to join other members of their families, others took shelter in the communities.
The second significant phase was the announcement of a ground operation entering the northern Gaza Strip and the Israeli army’s order to leave this part of the territory. Our teams had to travel south, like nearly 400,000 people, hoping to be safe from attack. Many missiles have been fired, including in the south in residential areas of Khan Younes and Rafah. We understand then that no zone is secured on the whole territory.
Alain Boinet: Since then, what are the humanitarian consequences for the Gazan population?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: The first attacks quickly displaced nearly 600,000 people. After the Israeli army announced a ground attack in the north, 400,000 people took the road to the south. The Gaza Strip of 2.3 million people sees more than half of its population crammed into an area that was already densely populated before that.
The destruction is massive, health facilities are affected like homes. The number of civilians killed by the bombing is increasing every day.
UNRWA schools have been transformed into reception centres for displaced populations as was the case during previous Israeli military operations in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021.
They quickly reached capacity: on 27 October, more than 640,000 people were registered in 150 UNRWA schools across the Gaza Strip, where access to sanitation and minimum hygiene conditions is becoming very complex.
Hospitals must rely solely on generators to ensure the continuity of their services; health facilities have been saturated from the first attacks. Strong images appeared in the media where one saw corpses arranged in the street because the morgues could no longer contain the bodies of the deceased. Rescue teams and the population mobilized as best they could to bury the dead and limit the associated health risks.
The hospitals were also bombed, like Al-Ahli Arab’s while it was in operation and sheltering displaced people. Other major hospitals in Gaza such as Al-Shifa, Al Quds or the Indonesian hospital have received regular messages from the Israeli army to evacuate immediately as attacks would be launched. The World Health Organization says that evacuation is impossible. Many patients are under respiratory assistance: evacuate to go where, how? While the whole Gaza Strip is bombed.
Alain Boinet: Humanitarian aid convoys have started arriving in Gaza, how is it going and can you continue your programs?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: The opening of the Rafah crossing is long because it is necessary to obtain the agreement of the three parties, namely Egypt on the one hand, the authorities of Gaza and Israel. The Egyptian Red Crescent is mandated to coordinate humanitarian aid to Rafah, then pass the relay to the Palestinian Red Crescent across the border. Hundreds of trucks were ready to return loaded with humanitarian aid with medicines, supplies for relief and health care, water, hygiene products and others. But the passage itself has been repeatedly bombed, the southern area has not been spared by the attacks, how to ensure a convoy without a ceasefire is guaranteed, if only the time of delivery of this aid?
Trucks are also controlled to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, so there is a whole accreditation process from Egypt to be part of the convoys.
Première Urgence Internationale has deployed an additional team from Egypt to prepare emergency kits that will be distributed to civilians living in Gaza as soon as the crossing is reopened. Food parcels, emergency shelter kits and medicines are currently being supplied for departure.
It is expected that this team in Egypt will return to the Gaza Strip as soon as possible to support our colleagues on the ground already mobilized with the few means at their disposal.
During the very first convoy, only about twenty trucks were able to cross the border after several days of negotiation. It is now a question of significantly increasing the frequency of these convoys, because the situation in Gaza is dramatic on the humanitarian level: civilians no longer have the opportunity to feed themselves properly, some drink seawater because water desalination machines can no longer operate due to lack of electricity and fuel. According to an OCHA report dated October 16, 2023, the average consumption of water from all sources for all needs has fallen to only three litres per day per person.
In parallel with the humanitarian convoy from Egypt, Première Urgence Internationale was able to direct part of its funds for immediate assistance targeted at 300 families identified among the displaced people. Businesses that still have some supplies of food, water and other essential products open occasionally between strikes which allows a limited supply, but essential to get bread, milk and other. Our teams in Gaza mobilized despite the precarious security conditions to deliver this aid. Several members of the team volunteered to return to work, while at the same time taking care of their loved ones and protecting themselves from the bombing.
In addition, 30 medicine trunks have been integrated into the humanitarian cargo organized from France by the Crisis and Support Center: each trunk can support 500 patients (pediatrics, emergency and general medicine).
Several other components have been opened to meet immediate water, hygiene and sanitation needs as soon as safe conditions allow.
Finally it is also important to mention that the entire Occupied Palestinian Territory is under tension. Teams in the West Bank are also facing an emergency. 109 people died in the West Bank and more than 2,000 people were injured in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Some access was cut off following the intervention of the Israeli army, the situation in Gaza causes the uprising of this other part of the Territory. We are concerned about a general flare-up.
Alain Boinet: We are talking about a possible evacuation of foreign nationals from Gaza. Are you going to get your foreign expatriates out and how can you continue or resume your programs?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: Our team in Gaza is mainly Palestinian, and we have two expatriates. It is expected that our two internationals will leave Gaza as soon as possible because their personal situation requires it. However, it is expected that other expatriates will join the team in Gaza as part of the emergency operation as soon as possible.
Programs continue when safe conditions permit. We mentioned above the immediate actions that have already been deployed, it is a question of strengthening them in the days and weeks to come.
Alain Boinet: Faced with a war that is likely to last and a possible ground offensive by the Israeli army, how do you think you can or not continue your humanitarian aid?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: First by reallocating our human, financial and material resources to the emergency response. As soon as the hostilities stop, we can measure the extent of the damage. The needs are already huge in terms of health, nutrition, but also the trauma of populations and caregivers who have had no respite to date.
In the 2014 war, the bombing continued for 51 days. There is no question of breaking that record. Today we are 23 days of intensive bombing night and day and we renew our calls to the belligerents and UN member states to declare an immediate and lasting ceasefire.
Infrastructure is on its knees, hospitals such as water and electricity networks have been seriously damaged, it will take a lot of means to return to a minimum situation of access to essential services. It will take a long time.
Our development programs will also be heavily impacted. Our teams need a truce to breathe and see how Première Urgence Internationale can be useful in this drama.
Alain Boinet: How can we in Gaza respect the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in the face of extreme conflict.
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: The First International Emergency position was clear from the outset by condemning all forms of violence against civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian. On October 8, we launched an appeal to the belligerents of Gaza, Israel and Lebanon to spare the civilian populations and to respect the humanitarian space.
This kind of situation leads us to be humble because we are quickly powerless in the face of the intensity of such violence. Our mandate is to help civilian victims wherever they are and whatever their origin. The treatment of victims of successive tragedies in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory shows an asymmetry in the ability to guarantee a protected and secure space for the population.
No civilian must pay the price of armed conflict, and our message if we are to be heard is to secure humanitarian space so that civilians can be spared from fighting, are not held hostage and have access to vital services. Impartiality is based on this fundamental principle of humanitarian action.
It is also important to note that the safety of our field staff is our responsibility. We take care not to expose them to risky situations where their safety would be threatened. Every word is weighed so as not to undermine the priority objective of our mandate, which is to access civilian victims to deliver humanitarian assistance.
Alain Boinet: How would you like to conclude this interview?
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART: By a message of hope, that Asma always wants to continue her profession as an archaeologist, and that this tragic period has passed, the people of Gaza and the entire Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel find the strength to overcome their trauma and work together for a lasting political solution.
As humanitarian workers, we continue to work as hard as we can to show solidarity with civilians and to respond to immediate needs. We hope that long-term solutions will be found to prevent this type of tragedy from being repeated or generalized.
Amal ABOU EL GHAYT – HUART currently works in the International First Emergency Communication Service. After studying foreign languages, she continued her training with a Master’s degree in humanitarian program management in 2005 before taking on several operational coordination roles within various humanitarian NGOs. 12 years of operational experience in different geographical areas (Maghreb, Middle East, Asia, Europe and Latin America) will be complemented by advocacy actions she is leading within Secours Islamique France from 2016 to 2018 and will participate in collective advocacy initiatives at the Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, the adoption of the Global Compacts on Migration in 2018 and the writing of France’s first humanitarian strategy the same year alongside other NGOs.
She will also volunteer to participate in the governance of several structures such as the Coordination Humanitaire et Développement (CHD), Action Contre la Faim or the Groupe URD Steering Committee «Learn and Innovate in the face of crises».
Since 2021, it has supported the various missions of Première Urgence Internationale around the world on press relations and communication, but also on humanitarian advocacy issues.