Eastern Ghouta: Desperate civilians choose to stay in basements rather than risk Russian humanitarian corridors

Neither a UN mandated ceasefire or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order for daily pauses in fighting has stopped the bloodshed in Syria’s last urban rebel stronghold

Wednesday 28 February 2018 18:50 GMT
Scenes of devastation in Syria after deadly shelling and airstrikes and eastern Ghouta

The streets of Eastern Ghouta are growing quieter and quieter, Dr Hamza Hassan says.

Food prices are soaring so people are staying away from markets, leading many to close up shop completely. Rubble and other air-strike debris is blocking many roads. Families have now been huddling in basements for 11 days, leaving them weak and ill from the damp conditions.

“I’ve been doing visits to people’s houses, as well as the hospitals,” he says over the phone. “No one should be living like this. The children have fevers and colds. They need sunlight.”

Russia said on Wednesday that al-Qaeda-linked rebel factions operating in the besieged rebel enclave of small towns and farms have shelled the humanitarian corridors leading out of the area for a second day, meaning no civilians have left and no aid has got in.

Rebel spokespeople, of course, said the shelling came from government forces.

At the same time, ground fighting has intensified in Hawsh al-Dawahra on the eastern edge of the rebel-held area. Government forces have pushed slightly forward, but suffered heavy losses, a war monitor said.

Four days after the UN demanded an immediate 30-day ceasefire across Syria and two days after Syrian ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, ordered daily pauses in the fighting, it is clear neither is working.

Dr Hassan said 10 people died at Arbeen Hospital on Wednesday morning – five succumbing to wounds sustained the day before and five killed in fresh strikes.

Boris Johnson suggests the UK could strike Syria in response to Assad's attack on eastern Ghouta

The death toll in the ferocious assault now stands at more than 600, by local counts, in what has quickly become one of the worst episodes of violence in seven years of civil war.

The Damascus suburb has been besieged by government forces since 2012 and was also the scene of a sarin and chlorine gas attack in 2013, one of the worst chemical incidents in modern history.

In recent months, however, Bashar al Assad’s government has tightened the siege, leaving its estimated 400,000 civilians struggling with dwindling food and medical supplies. At the same time, it has stepped up the military campaign.

The violence unleashed in the area since a new wave of Russian-backed bombing began on 18 February has been unprecedented. Activists on the ground report the use of illegal barrel bombs and chlorine gas – claims the Syrian army has repeatedly denied.

Such reports are fabricated by the rebels themselves, both Syrian and Russian government sources have said. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, said last week that the international community was suffering from “mass psychosis” over the situation in Eastern Ghouta.

But the civilian suffering in pictures and video – viewed by several verification specialists such as Bellingcat – is undeniable.

“It is bad, the ceasefire is useless,” resident Wassim Khatib says. “How can we defend ourselves against this?” he asks, sending a picture of a huge smoke cloud towering above his already decimated neighbourhood after the latest air strike.

Ghouta is one of four supposed de-escalation zones created in a May 2017 agreement brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran to quell fighting between rebel forces and the regime – but Damascus and Moscow say the rebel forces fighting there are extremist groups and therefore not covered by the deal.

Al-Qaeda-linked factions are thought by monitors and Western intelligence to have a small, but not insignificant, presence in the area.

The tactics currently being employed in Eastern Ghouta echo the Assad playbook in several other urban battles in Syria’s war, including Homs, Daraya and Aleppo.

A senior US general speaking to Reuters on background accused Moscow of acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” by failing to rein in Mr Assad.

In neighbourhoods of Damascus where dozens have died in heavy rocket fire from Ghouta, many people are also weary of bloodshed.

Hundreds of people there have taken to social media with anonymised posts asking the government assault to stop to “Save Ghouta”.

Others are willing the offensive on. “Burn Ghouta, and let’s make shawarma out of its children’s bodies,” one widely circulated post from a government supporter read.

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