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Oxfam press officer Zahra Akkerhuys was in the media center at he UN’s headquarters in Geneva, at the Palais des Nations, as the first day of talks between the Syrian Government and Opposition unfolded. Here, she talks about her day:
Yesterday morning (Friday) I thought about Um Hani as I ate my breakfast. Um Hani is a calm and dignified mother-of-eight from Syria, who now lives as a refugee in Jordan. I met her towards the end of last year – and will never forget her serene smile and quiet sadness as she remembered her home and the fields that she and her family used to farm.
Geneva is a world away from the tiny, poorly-maintained flat that Um Hani and her family are sharing, but I felt close to her as I made my way to the UN’s headquarters in Geneva, at the Palais des Nations for the first day of talks between the Government and Opposition in Geneva.
For it is because of Um Hani - and millions like her - that the Geneva peace talks matter. It has taken years for the Government and Opposition to come to the negotiating table. Years during which more than 100,000 people have lost their lives and millions more have lost their homes and livelihoods.
At the Palais, I waited all day in the press room to hear that progress was being made in finding a solution to the war in Syria which was devastating so may lives. Both sides were not even in the same room yesterday. The UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi undertook shuttle diplomacy between the two rooms – and at different stages of the day, several journalists were reporting that the talks could be on the verge of collapse.
The rumours made it hard to know how the negotiations were actually going – and if there was going to be a significant breakthrough – or if one party would walk-out. At Brahimi’s press conference at the end of the day a ripple went round the room; against many expectations he announced that both sides would be meeting face-to-face for the first time today (Saturday). There has even been a commitment to discuss improving access for humanitarian aid and ending the violence.
Of course there is a long way to go before a lasting political solution is found – and Brahimi himself has acknowledged that the road is going to be bumpy along the way. He’s a pragmatic and experienced diplomat and is not under-estimating the difficult and complex task ahead. But many said that Geneva 2 would never happen – and it has. Many said both sides would never agree to meet in the same room – but they have. Change can happen – but it takes a genuine commitment from those involved to be lasting. The violence must stop. Too many lives have been destroyed already.
Last night, I was left wondering what would Um Hani say about today? I wish that I could ask her.