US hotline for Syria ceasefire lost in translation

US State Department struggles to provide staff who are fluent enough in Arabic to receive reports of ceasefire breaches.

Russia air strikes
The State Department said the Arabic language skills of some of the operators 'weren't properly vetted' [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

A 24-hour hotline set up by the US State Department for people in Syria to report alleged violations of a ceasefire agreement has faced serious language hurdles.

The State Department said on Wednesday that it was working to provide operators who were fluent enough in Arabic to hold proper conversations with callers to the hotline, which was established on February 27 when the truce came into effect, and accurately log the allegations.

Syrians can also report truce breaches to the State Department through email, text, and Google Voice. They can also issue complaints to the United Nations.

The international community is trying to monitor a nationwide ceasefire between Syrian rebel groups and the Russian-backed Damascus government that was agreed upon last week, but opposition groups have accused the other side of breaching it with heavy attacks across the country. 

“We are aware that there were some language issues and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers that are able to field incoming calls,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

He added that the Arabic language skills of some of the operators “weren’t properly vetted”.

The issue came to light after a number of Syrians called to report alleged truce violations but doubted that they were understood properly by the staff.

Syria Direct, a group of journalists reporting on the Syrian conflict, has published an article citing the barriers their members encountered when trying to report violations.

READ MORE: Syria War – what you need to know about the ceasefire

“I did not 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,” Syria Direct reporter Orion Wilcox was quoted as saying.

“He is really struggling and can’t understand me. I am like, why is this American guy on the phone who cannot 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 added: “Wilcox said he finally switched to English and asked the hotline monitor how he could effectively document events without understanding all the Arabic. The operator answered that other people were working the hotline, declined to comment further and hung up.”

Source: Al Jazeera