This time last year the world was aghast at the siege of Aleppo. Today Eastern Ghouta attracts less attention. Surrounded by Syrian and Russian government forces, it is a battleground in which several rebel groups (Islamist, Al Qaeda, Free Syrian Army) are fighting each other, whilst Assad tries to starve them all out. They may take 400,000 trapped civilians with them. Eastern Ghouta’s residents are dying of hunger only 15km from the thriving cafes of Damascus city centre.
The siege tightened in October as the government restricted the last remaining entry point for food and medicines and Sahar Dofdaa starved to death aged only one month but looking like a tiny Belsen victim, her malnourished mother unable to produce milk. Baby Karim Abdel Rahman lost his left eye in an air strike and Syrian children gathered for photos, hand over eye in solidarity. The images went viral and people around the world tweeted similar pictures of themselves, including Matthew Rycroft, the British permanent representative to the UN. Sadly Twitter pictures don’t break sieges, they just create a sad theatre of death. Meanwhile the UN plead in vain to be allowed to take food in.
In November, airstrikes intensified, pounding civilian areas without discernible rebel targets, and the one-month cost of a “survival minimum expenditure basket” – a unit used by humanitarian organisations to measure basic survival needs – reached US$700, 85 times the price in nearby Damascus. Unicef reported over 800 cases of severe child malnutrition. Doctors reported parents feeding mashed newspaper to children, who are dying of infections easily treatable with basic drugs.
In December, after humanitarian appeals from King Abdullah, President Erdogan, and, bizarrely, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (and possibly in return for prisoner releases) the ICRC extracted 29 of the worst medical cases. 9 on the original list refused to leave, fearing Assad’s intentions once in his power, and two were dead, so 11 more critical cases, mainly children, were substituted. 500 more need urgent medical evacuation, but wait in vain.
The UN Security Council has not formally demanded an end to the siege of Eastern Ghouta, perhaps unsurprisingly when one of its permanent members is such a major player in the skies above it. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report Russian cluster bomb strikes now include thermite, an aluminium powder and iron oxide which burns after exploding, with devastating results.
Martin Bell, writing in the Huffington post on New Year’s Eve, called Syria an invisible emergency, but there’s nothing about invisible about this siege, it’s just that the eye of the world is looking the other way. Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan, drowning refugees, two presidents squabbling over their nuclear buttons and a Prime Minister fighting her own party – no wonder the front page of the Times on New Year’s day stuck with good news for British jobs and house prices.
Time is running out for Eastern Ghouta. The father of a child with eye cancer who recently died as her doctors begged for her evacuation has refused to try to evacuate his younger, similarly affected baby. This time we’ll wait to die together, he says. It’s hard to disagree.
photo: Syrians make their way through debris following an air strike in the opposition-held town of Beit Sawa in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on December 3, 2017. ( AFP )