There’s currently a “ceasefire” in effect throughout Syria, in an attempt to stem bloodshed between Russia, Turkey, the Syrian government, and various rebel groups. It has been violated over 30 times already. To help the U.S. keep track of this humanitarian disaster, the State Department is running a war zone hotline for Syrians to report violence. So far, it’s not going well.
According to Syria Direct, a non-profit journalism outfit providing local coverage of the ongoing Syrian civil war, trying to report ceasefire violations to the U.S. government hasn’t been much more productive than calling Comcast. If you can even get through to the 202 number (yes, you’ll have to place a long-distance international call from a war-ravaged country to reach the State Department by phone), your experience might be something like this:
“I called at 12:45am Saturday morning, just 45 minutes into the ceasefire,” says Syria Direct reporter Wilcox.
“I didn’t expect an American to answer; he answered in English but switched to Arabic. I started telling him in Arabic about reports we were getting from Homs province of specific ceasefire violations.”
“He’s really struggling and can’t understand me,” says Wilcox. “I’m like, why is this American guy on the phone who can’t speak Arabic? I’d give a detailed account of something happening in Homs province and he would listen and his answer was: ‘Homs.’ That’s it.”
Syria Direct also reports an instance of a “wrong number” response as well as “what appeared to be an accidental string of expletives.” But more worrying than the technical issues are what appear to be a lack of preparedness on the part of those picking up the phones:
During the call Osama told the operator the name of the village (Hirbinifsah) four times and spelled it out.
However, when Osama asked whether the operator knew where the village was, he responded: “Yes, Harb Bebsi,” the latter being the word for “Pepsi” in Arabic.
Luckily, State is offering app-based options (like Telegram) and a Google Voice number. Unluckily, these channels probably still lead to the Harb Bebsi guy.
Update: A State Department spokesperson provided me with the follow comment:
“To help monitor the cessation of hostilities in Syria, which started February 27, the U.S. Department of State established an information hotline, staffed 24/7, where violations can be reported via phone, email, text, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Google Voice. This information hotline is part of our broader Syria team and staffed by State Department personnel, some of whom speak Arabic. We have received reports of violations, take them very seriously, and want to see every allegation thoroughly reviewed. We are mindful and working to address the difficulties that some have experienced when calling in to convey reports of violations in Arabic. We appreciate the continued patience and forbearance of those sharing this information – as well as their bravery to do so – as we continue to develop and improve mechanisms to monitor the cessation of hostilities.”