Trapped in Syria's besieged Ghouta: “life has ceased, the children are waiting to die”
The conflict in Syria has dragged on a year longer than World War II now, and is only getting worse in places like rebel-held Eastern Ghouta – where bombs, rockets and shells continue to rain down on a terrified population.
“The situation can only be described as catastrophic,” Abd, a 28-year-old voluntary rescue worker with the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as “The White Helmets,” told Fox News on Thursday. “Continuous, continuous shelling at every moment. Life has ceased. Civilians – the women and the children – are waiting for death.”
An estimated 400,000 people are currently trapped inside Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. More than half are said to be children, and almost all are in dire need of humanitarian aid. More than 400 have been reported killed, and almost 2,000 wounded in the last week alone.
“Hundreds of bombs are dropping on us, there have been 300 airstrikes in the past three days,” Firas Abdullah, a 24-year-old opposition activist and aid worker, told Fox News on Thursday afternoon from his basement in the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma. “People are suffering from their wounds. We can hear the crying and the screaming of the women and children in their homes.”
Syrian and Russian warplanes have taken part in the bombing, according to Abdullah, who said there have also been drone strikes.
“For 24 hours a day they are capturing everything about where all the civilians are, filming where the crowded places are, he continued. “Because it is civilians they want to kill.”
There are few medical professionals left to tend to the injured, activists say.
The bombing campaign escalated on Feb. 4, according to reports, and among its targets hit many medical clinics. More than a dozen such facilities have been struck in just the last week. As a result, there aren’t enough medical professionals left to tend to the injured.
“Most of the victims are women, children and the elderly. They have been in their basements for more than three days, the barrel bombs are penetrating small buildings, and killing people even in these basements,” said Khaled Almilaji, CEO and Chairman of the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organization (SIMRO), a non-partisan foundation focused on suppling public health services to war-torn parts of Syria.
Photographs and videos obtained by Fox News show hauntingly empty streets in Ghouta, as families bunker down in ad-hoc underground caves and shelters. Already dwindling supplies of rice and water are fast disappearing. And broken bodies lay dead beneath the rubble, as tiny bloodied children are carted from their decimated homes on makeshift stretchers.
“Most people eat once a day and some eat every other day, mostly just vegetables and rice if they can find it,” said Abd. “Schools have been suspended for more than two months due to the shelling. We need international action to save the remaining civilians.”
For those trapped inside, there seems nowhere to flee.
“Anyone who tries to leave will get shot by snipers,” Abdullah said. “We are stuck on an island here. I want to demand the world helps us in a humanitarian way. What is happening in Eastern Ghouta is a genocide.”
Aid agencies have complained for months that they have not been able to reach the hardest-hit areas, and are calling for an urgent ceasefire.
“We have warehouses and trucks of supplies ready to go, but we need a humanitarian pause in the fighting and the government needs to give us facilitation,” Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) told Fox News. “We are hoping to get an agreement for something to start this weekend. We have not been able to get any convoys into Eastern Ghouta since November.”
During most of 2017, Egeland said aid workers were often held at gunpoint by pro-regime forces, and forced to remove medical supplies from their vehicles – everything from scissors and surgical items to trauma care equipment – under the premise they did not want wounded rebel soldiers to be treated.
Youssef Sadaki, a Syrian political and social investigator with the Orient Research Center, concurred the wounded of Ghouta simply have no place to go. Few emergency rooms are operable, and the only supplies permitted to enter in months came 10 days ago in the form of a small UN convoy. The convoy was able to provide basic supplies to some 8,000 people – a mere two percent of the population.
The U.S. State Department expressed “deep concern” over the increasing violence this week, condemning the Syrian and Russian governments for their actions. The White House said Washington endorsed the UN’s plea for a ceasefire to allow aid and medical supplies to enter.
The attacks have not been one-sided. Egeland said rebels in Eastern Ghouta have fired some 800 rockets into government-held territory in Damascus – some of that prior to the uptick in the air assault. Eastern Ghouta had previously been designated as a “de-escalation zone,” and was thus designed to be a safe zone. But that’s not how it has held up.
The Assad government deems all opposition forces to be “terrorists,” and insists they are targeting dangerous jihadist groups, and not civilians. Russia – Assad’s ally and protector – asserts “illegal armed formations” had rejected demands to lay down their arms.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called accusations they were complicit in civilian deaths “unsubstantiated.” The governments in Damascus and Moscow have also denied claims of using barrel bombs against civilians.
Civilians in Eastern Ghouta also told Fox News they are surrounded by Iran-backed, pro-Assad militia groups. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, this week conceded to the BBC that Iranian troops were in Syria to battle “terrorist elements.”
But Abd, of the White Helmets, staunchly rebuffed assertions that Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like Al-Nusra were operating inside the besieged region as “propaganda.”
“They are killing us under the name of killing Al-Nusra,” he lamented. “But there are not here.”