By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a key figure in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Motaz Atassi has had to cope with the loss of 50 volunteers working with the aid agency across the country, but he remains as committed as ever to helping his fellow Syrians.
In his first interview since the conflict began in March 2011, SARC Secretary General Atassi spoke of his pain and defiance after the killing of 23 of the team in the branch he heads in the western city of Homs.
SARC is a key partner for humanitarian and United Nations agencies in Syria, with up to 60 percent of UN relief funds channeled through the group which runs medical clinics, ambulance services and delivers food and other aid across Syria.
"[Syria] is my country. I don't know what keeps me there, but I have never been afraid," Atassi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at the British Red Cross offices in London.
SARC is part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, a global network of impartial, humanitarian aid organizations, staffed largely by volunteers and with most of its funding from governments.
Atassi took over as secretary general of SARC as well as his Homs role following the 2012 death of his predecessor, Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro, who was shot while traveling in northern Syria in a Red Crescent vehicle.
Attacks by government forces, insurgents and opposition groups have killed 220,000 people in Syria, according to the United Nations, and left humanitarian agencies struggling to supply much needed aid under heavy bombardment.
Dozens of civilians were wounded in Homs last Sunday when bombs exploded in a busy commercial street and on the southern edge of the city.
"I remember 30 or 40 people died in one bombardment," said Atassi, a slight figure who also works as surgeon in the building where SARC is based.
"One moment I was upstairs in my [Red Crescent] office. Then suddenly I was running downstairs to carry out my work as a doctor," he said with a steely glance over his gold-rimmed glasses.
Atassi said he has had to treat all kinds of wounded, both civilians and soldiers.
"We are neutral, we do not discriminate," he said, referring to the Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations' vow of impartiality and providing life-saving first aid to all injured.
Homs became a focal point in the conflict in 2012 as Syrian forces intensified their attacks on the city to repel armed opposition groups.
Atassi said thousands of people had streamed into Homs in recent weeks from nearby Palmyra, an ancient city which has fallen under the control of Islamic State fighters but he was committed to his role.
"I have a very experienced team of 11,000 volunteers. Yes, it is a challenge to recruit new ones, but you cannot underestimate the Homs people.
"They have sacrificed their education, their livelihoods, but they have not given up," he said.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)