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Syria Refugee Crisis; Imagine a World

Aired March 27, 2014 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

U.S. President Barack Obama was in Rome today, where he met Pope Francis and was greeted with all the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. But it wasn't just a photo opportunity. There are serious matters to discuss, of course, including the pope's very vocal mission for peace in Syria.

The war there passed the grim three-year milestone this month. Let's not forget it was triggered by youngsters scrawling graffiti for change on a wall. And it's the youngsters who have paid a disproportionate price for Assad's revenge, the U.N. calling Syria the most dangerous place on Earth for children today.

The regime's brutality has been met by the equivalent of a global shrug. Neither the United States nor its allies around the world have mustered the will to end what the U.N. refugee chief, Antonio Guterres, called a disgraceful humanitarian tragedy. And he'll join me later in this program.

But first the blowback has already begun. Ripples of terrorism and jihad have extended from Syria into Iraq, Africa and Western intelligence chiefs worry about the threats to Europe and the United States. Diplomacy is at a dead end and even the much touted chemical weapons deal has in fact cemented Assad's position in power, the director of U.S. national intelligence told the Congress. As for the sheer human suffering, perhaps we can begin to comprehend the horror by the raw numbers.

Every 10 minutes, somebody dies in this conflict. That's according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the opposition group which is the only one trying to keep a toll because the U.N. has given up. The dead are now so numerous and the last time we checked it was 140,000.

Every minute three Syrians become refugees abroad, 2.5 million people have fled the war, according to the U.N. and about 5 million are internally displaced. And every two minutes eight Syrian children are forced to flee their homes. UNICEF calls this the lost generation.

And we have to ask, who are they going to blame when they grow up? Upon whom will they take out their anger and their sense of betrayal.

The global superstar Angelina Jolie has been using her voice and her clout to tell some of these stories. As a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR, she spent many years highlighting the plight of refugees around the world. And recently she traveled to camps in Lebanon, talking to some of these Syrian children, who've lost everything and everyone. And we present the heartbreaking film she made exclusively on this program tonight.



ANGELINA JOLIE, ACTOR, FILM DIRECTOR, SCREENWRITER AND AUTHOR (voice- over): Here in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Syrians arrive daily to escape the war. As the war in Syria enters its fourth year, one-quarter of Lebanon's population are refugees from Syria. Most are women and children.

Hala and her five siblings arrived here as orphans. Like many refugees in Lebanon, this tent has become their home. When I met Hala and her brothers and sisters, they had been living in this camp for almost a year.

HALA (from captions): In the daytime, I don't remember a lot.

But at night, before I sleep, I remember everything. I had a dream my mom was alive; she was in Syria. She came to me here.

She said, "Hala, Hala, wake up."

I woke up but I didn't find her here.

I went back to sleep. I wanted to dream again, but I couldn't.

JOLIE: You said your mom has long hair. Tell me something else about your mom.

I didn't get to meet your mom so I want to know what she was like.

Was she like you?

HALA (from captions): She looked like Rahaf. Her cheeks her nose and her eyes, but her teeth are not the same. Rahaf's teeth are not as nice.

JOLIE (voice-over): One year ago, Hala's mother was killed in an airstrike that hit their house. Hala and her 17-year-old brother, Kamel, were playing in the garden when it happened.

HALA (from captions): I was playing with Kamel. He was pushing me on the swing. We started to hear the bombs dropping. Suddenly we saw the House falling down on my mother. Kamel ran to her.

JOLIE (voice-over): What Kamel witnessed changed him forever. The psychological trauma was so intense he now suffers seizures. His personality regressed to that of a child.

HALA (from captions): Hello, Kamel. I am your father.

Look, he feels dizzy. Didn't I tell you this happens?

Nemer, Kamel's losing consciousness.

Take this. Bring the pills. Where are they?

It's OK. I have them in my pocket.

JOLIE (voice-over): Last seen in Syria almost a year ago, their father is most likely dead.

NEMER (from captions): No, no, no. Put a rag on his head.

HALA (from captions): Here are the pills.

NEMER (from captions): Did you give him one?

HALA (from captions): Not yet, I just gave them to you.

He was just like Nemer. He was normal. He was smarter than all of us. He was better than us. Nothing was wrong with him.

JOLIE (voice-over): The children put their responsibilities at home. Hala looks after the family.

NEMER (from captions): Hala was like any other kid. She went to school, she played, life was normal. Now she has changed a lot. Hala has to care for her brothers and sisters while I go looking for rubbish to sell so I can buy food.


JOLIE (voice-over): It has been a difficult adjustment.

NEMER (from captions): It's not fair that we have to live this life. From where we were to where we are now. At least when we were together with our parents, we didn't have any responsibility. Now an 11-year-old girl has the responsibility of a 50-year old.

HALA (from captions): We lived in a nice big house. We didn't need money or anything from anyone. We used to stay up late listening to bedtime stories. Every night we would clean our hands and feet and put on pajamas. We had a big green garden where we used to play. It had orange trees.

JOLIE (voice-over): More than half of the 2.5 million refugees fleeing Syria are children like Hala.

NEMER (from captions): I'll come and help you down. Come down, don't worry.

JOLIE (voice-over): Every week, Nemer sells the rubbish they collect.

NEMER (from captions): Balance it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Let's see. Let's say 35 kilos.

NEMER (from captions): OK, 35 kilos. It's a deal. That's fine.

JOLIE (voice-over): This week he made just enough for them to get by.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (from captions): Are your kids alone now? Are they alone?

JOLIE: My kids are with their dad.

JOLIE (voice-over): Losing their mother in such a violent way and becoming refugees has forced them to grow up before their time. Their childhood has been lost to the horrors of this conflict.

HALA (from captions): If she came here for just one day I would never let her go. I would let her tell me stories and I would fall asleep beside her. I'd tell her, I love you, Mom. I miss you. Come back to us.

NEMER (from captions): We have all lost our childhood, all of us.


AMANPOUR: Unspeakable tragedy for these children. Desperation that's replicated in all the nations that border Syria, groaning under the weight of refugees, threatening to destabilize these key Western allies.

And after a break, Antonio Guterres, UNHCR's high commissioner, joins us with strong warnings about the security consequences for us all as well as the humanitarian crisis, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

This is the worst refugee crisis in decades, just the massive logistical operation to get all the desperate Syrians food, shelter and water are daunting, not to mention the cost that is harder to measure and that is the psychological trauma leveled on these children, robbing their childhood and their innocence and worse, robbing them of hope.

UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres is barely keeping his head above water. He joined me earlier from his Geneva headquarters, to describe the organization's struggle and to issue a dire warning that all of this suffering will blow back to haunt us all.


AMANPOUR: Antonio Guterres, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: We just saw this amazing film that Angelina Jolie did. You were with her as she was making this film.

What was it that struck her so deeply?

GUTERRES: What is dramatic is to see the impact of trauma, how much this is a generation traumatized by violence.

I remember in Jordan another child, a 4-year-old child, a boy; we were there for 20 minutes in his family's tent. And he was constantly shooting with a toy gun. And nobody managed to calm him down because violence is so deeply now in his way of life.

In Lebanon we have helped about 110,000 children with psychosocial support, but let's be honest. It's not effective, psychosocial support, taking into account the depths of the trauma that we are facing.

When we see this tragedy, when we see this generation, it really breaks our heart because it's not only these children; it's the future of Syria --


AMANPOUR: Well, let me --

GUTERRES: -- that is being completely undermined.

AMANPOUR: -- and let me take that a little bit further, because not just the future of Syria, but the future of the region. To be very, very brutally frank, there could be terrible blowback in the future.

These children who've been traumatized, this generation that is lost, these people who have no hope are going to blame somebody sometime.

You're a former prime minister. What security concerns do you have about this?

GUTERRES: I think it is obvious that the Syrian conflict is not only the worst humanitarian tragedy that we have since the Rwanda genocide, but it's I'm sure now the biggest threat, not only to regional stability but to global peace and security that we have witnessed since many, many decades ago.

We have now the spillover of the conflict into Lebanon with lots of incidents and into Iraq, where practically what's happening in Anbar is the same kind of struggle that we've seen in Syria, sometimes with the same actors.

We have fighters in Syria coming from all over the world. And one day they will go back.

Recently in a meeting with the minister of home affairs of Europe, their main concern was not the number of refugees coming into Europe; it was the number of European citizens going into Syria to fight in Syria now.

And that one day will come, radicalized, hardened and potentially a security threat for their own countries.

So if this war is not stopped, if the international community is not able to overcome its decisions and to come together to stop this war, I think that we risk to have because of the Syria crisis and because of its impact in the region and further afield, we risk to have a terrible worsening of our security situation.

AMANPOUR: But how will this stop, Mr. Guterres?

You have seen that there is no political will beyond the little humanitarian help, a little goodwill in terms of wishing that things were better, beyond a little bit of solidarity by various public figures, hoping that this will be the last of the Syrian anniversaries. It's going nowhere, not even the diplomacy.

President Obama is in Europe; he's meeting with the pope. He's meeting obviously with many of the allies.

What are they going to do? What will it take?

GUTERRES: This is clearly something that needs a political commitment. Obviously as high commission for refugees, I must be strictly involved in humanitarian issues.

But let me just make an observation. I've never seen any major crisis in the world being solved without a lot of discreet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy preparing what is inevitably necessary as public diplomacy that would lead to, in the end, a result.

Many conflicts in the past -- and it's like that.

What is for me dramatic in Syria is that I don't see that activity behind the scenes. And there are a number of countries that are absolutely vital, because those are the countries that support, sometimes politically, sometimes with weapons and with money, both the government and the opposition, countries like the U.S., like Russia, but like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey.

And I believe it's absolutely essential that these countries all understand that today this is a war nobody's winning.

And this is becoming a serious threat to everybody. And it would be very important if these countries would be able to start engaging quietly without any immediate public impact, because these things are very difficult to manage when you have, at the same time, to satisfy your own constituency.

But we need these countries to come together. They need to create the conditions for a political solution to be adopted, because it is clear that both the government and the opposition cannot survive without the support of the key stakeholders around the conflict.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Guterres, let's talk about the threat and the burden that these refugees, who you are responsible for, are placing on these neighboring countries. You touched on it; Angelina's film for UNHCR was done in Lebanon.

And you have said that some towns in Lebanon have more Syrian refugees than Lebanese people. It's a massive burden on Lebanon.

How is that going to be resolved; or rather, is there a fear of a tipping point in Lebanon right now?

GUTERRES: It is clear for me that without massive solidarity from international community, massive support, not only to the refugees, not only from the humanitarian perspective, but massive economic, financial support and burden sharing in relation to Lebanon, from international community, Lebanon has not the possibility to go on with the present situation.

Twenty-five percent of the Lebanese population today is Syrian. We have more Syrian students in Lebanese public schools than Lebanese students. Lebanon has serious problems with electricity and water and largely because of this huge increase in population.

The health system is totally overburdened. And the security implications of the Syrian crisis to Lebanon are absolutely dramatic. Nobody can afford the collapse of Lebanon in the present moment.

AMANPOUR: And finally, Mr. Guterres, with all this trauma, with all this desperate need, your counterpart at UNICEF, former U.S. national security adviser Tony Lake, told me that Syria is the most dangerous place in the world for a child right now.

Ertharin Cousin, the head of the WFP, says that in some areas there is such hunger that there's starvation and that only half, at the very most, of those in need are getting what they need from the world.

Are you getting the kind of funding, money, support, help for those inside Syria in such desperate need right now?

GUTERRES: There is some financial support to our activities, WFP, UNICEF activities inside Syria.

I think the biggest problem has been access and we have 6.5 million people displaced inside Syria, 9 million people in need of assistance, a little bit less than 200,000 people besieged in areas where no assistance can reach and that are in the most desperate situations.

So indeed the suffering of the Syrian people within Syria, it is even more desperate than what we can witness when, like Angelina Jolie, we contact the refugees outside.

It's something that really breaks our heart.

AMANPOUR: Antonio Guterres, thank you very much indeed for joining us. Very sobering.

GUTERRES: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And you can listen to Guterres describe how Jordan and Turkey are coping. That's online at

Meantime, more famous faces are raising their voices. Previously on this program, the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told me that she's joined a campaign aimed at making sure the war's fourth anniversary doesn't roll around.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FMR. SECY. OF STATE: Some of the former foreign ministers are supporting a hashtag, #withSyria. And I hope that there will be an outcry of people who understand that what is happening to the Syrian people is untenable and this will be the last anniversary of the humanitarian horror show.


AMANPOUR: And consider this: in 1993, the average time spent as a refugee was nine years. Ten years later, that has nearly doubled to 17 years. When all hope dies, after a break.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we want to leave you with this short message from the International Rescue Committee that's been caring for refugees ever since 1933, when Albert Einstein himself a refugee led the effort to aid the victims of Nazi persecution. The IRC's current president is the former British foreign secretary, David Miliband, the son of Belgian refugees who fled Hitler.

And he's called the Syrian crisis, quote, "the biggest humanitarian test of the century," and the organization has just made a film. It's a plea, really, with soundtrack by Bono that we thought we'd share with you as we say goodbye from London tonight.