Nightmare of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta Siege Leaves Mark on its Residents

Eastern Ghouta, Syria
Souad, 38, from Ghouta near Damascus, sits with her daughters and husband in a disused store in which they now live, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, on July 23, 2014. Photo: Sam Tarling, NRC

The battle against Islamic State in Syria is nearing its end, but fighting still rages on between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces. In eastern Ghouta, a city near Damascus and one of Syria’s most contested areas, civilians are increasingly suffocated under a siege in place since December 2012 as the violence intensifies.

In a bid to reunite Syria under its rule after nearly seven years of civil war, the regime targets the remaining opposition-held areas. Eastern Ghouta has mostly been controlled by Jaish al-Islam and Jahbat Fateh al-Sham – formerly Jahbat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

The Globe Post spoke to the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose team has been on the ground monitoring the situation since the worst bout of fighting commenced on November 14. The team reported that the humanitarian situation has deteriorated in the last several months.

“Since 14 November, there is almost non-stop fighting that has worsened an already dire situation. Every day we hear reports of more civilians losing their lives or getting seriously injured in Eastern Ghouta,” ICRC spokesperson Ingy Sedky said, speaking on behalf of the team now in Damascus.

“As so often in Syria over the last six years, ordinary people are the ones paying the price for this conflict, trapped in a situation where life slowly becomes impossible and where essential goods, medical care, and aid are severely limited,” she added.

The team has met many civilians, who display high levels of anger and frustration. Mothers struggle to feed their children. Some mothers go for many days only eating soup or boiled cobs, the only food they could afford. The ICRC team reported that many families can only afford to eat one meal a day.

“Before the fighting, one loaf of bread was the equivalent of 50 cents. Now it is around $10. Sugar has gone from around 50 cents to $25. Cooking oil has spiked from $1.50 to $16. Even us in the West could not always pay this amount of money for these items, which Syrians used on a daily basis. One can only imagine how hard life is for people there now,” ICRC spokesperson Iolanda Jaquement told The Globe Post.

Medical workers have reported hundreds of sick and wounded civilians, who have no access to life-saving medical care.

“Our team has seen many diseases on people, including cancer, kidney failure, and diabetes. These were usually treatable, but because of a shortage of medical supplies, these diseases are now impossible to treat and are getting worse,” Ms. Jaquement said.

“Since many people are malnourished, especially children, diseases could also worsen from this, if they do not follow a proper diet.”

Fuel in Eastern Ghouta has almost run out, restricting access to proper heating this winter, while increasing health risks for people who are already ill and malnourished.

“Eastern Ghouta once was a flourishing, agricultural center in Syria, where people could grow their own food,” Ms. Jaquement said. “Yet due to fuel shortages, people cannot pump enough water to irrigate their fields.”

“Now it is important that all parties reach an agreement as soon as possible, and put the civilians’ needs first. There is a need to protect and respect the civilians at all times, as well as civilian objects, in accordance with International Humanitarian Law,” Ms. Sedky said.

“In addition, humanitarian aid should be allowed in regularly and unconditionally, whether in Eastern Ghouta or elsewhere in Syria.”

Alun McDonald, the Jordan-based regional spokesperson for the charity Save the Children, told The Globe Post that since the brief ceasefire near the end of November, not a day has passed without bombing in Eastern Ghouta. The siege also prevents medical evacuations for those suffering from worsening medical conditions, who cannot be treated in the city.

Since November, only small aid convoys have reached Eastern Ghouta’s civilians, which is insufficient for the 400,000 people trapped inside.

“We are worried about the siege’s impact on children. Our partners on the ground in Eastern Ghouta report high levels of psychological trauma among children. Many reportedly have nightmares, while others cannot sleep,” Mr. McDonald said.

“The fighting affects their moods in extreme ways. While some children seem distant and unable to engage with adults, some children have become much more aggressive.”

Mr. McDonald expressed concern about how this continued fighting would impair the children’s future development, causing life-long physical and psychological harm.

Last week, representatives of the Syrian regime and opposition met in Geneva to engage in peace talks, which the U.N. Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called a “missed opportunity for peace.”

The ICRC believes this failure in negotiations will hold up the easing of civilian suffering in Eastern Ghouta.