The devastation wrought in eastern Ghouta by a relentless bombardment by the Syrian regime has forced doctors to use expired drugs and scrabble for water as the number of dead reached 300 in three days, medics and activists said.
At least 260 people were killed and 500 injured in the rebel held-enclave of Eastern Ghouta between Monday and Tuesday evening, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said Wednesday. The Damascus Media Center told CNN another 45 deaths had been reported in Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday.
The intensified bombardment in recent weeks of Eastern Ghouta, an area outside Damascus that has been besieged by the regime of Bashar al-Assad for years, has drawn international condemnation. Amnesty International said “flagrant war crimes” were being committed on an “epic scale” there, and the UN children’s agency UNICEF published a blank statement, saying in a footnote there were “no words” to describe the suffering of children.
The latest onslaught has prompted warnings that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by the Russian military, is preparing to crush the rebel-held enclave.
Nearly 400,000 people are trapped in Eastern Ghouta, many of them in desperate need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations. Once described as the “breadbasket” for Damascus, it is the same area that was the target of an alleged chemical attack in 2013, which activists say killed about 1,400 people.
In recent days, families have retreated to makeshift underground shelters with limited food and water as they try to shelter from the intense bombardment.
Options are increasingly limited for those injured as the bombs, rockets and shells rain down. Thirteen medical facilities were targeted on Monday and Tuesday, according to SAMS, some of them with crude barrel bombs. Of those facilities, four were completely destroyed and two have temporarily suspended their activities. SAMS lost three of its health workers in the strikes, it said.
A volunteer medical worker in Eastern Ghouta, who gave an assumed name, Adam Aslan, fearing retribution by regime forces, told CNN on Wednesday he worked in Dar al-Shifa field hospital, one of the 13 facilities hit since Sunday.
He described a desperate situation where doctors were using expired drugs, including anesthetics, because they had no other option. Equipment in operating theaters and intensive care units is out of date and there are only about 105 doctors to care for all those trapped in Eastern Ghouta, he said.
Aslan, who was in his last year of high school when the civil war began nearly seven years ago, has been volunteering as a medical worker for the past six years.
Asked about basic services and goods, Aslan said: “Water and electricity that we used to get from the Syrian side have not seen it in seven years. If we are lucky, we get water from natural aquifers and other water wells. As for electricity, we depend on generators and fuel.” These are now almost impossible to find, he added.
“These are the worst days of our lives in Ghouta,” Eastern Ghouta hospital director and pediatrician Amani Ballour told CNN on Tuesday.
“We in Ghouta have been getting hit by airstrikes for more than five years and this is not new to us … but we have never seen anything like this escalation.”
Rebels fire into Damascus
The Syrian regime, which is backed by the Russian military, says it is targeting terrorist groups in Eastern Ghouta.
Rebels have responded by firing into Damascus. Syrian state news agency SANA said two people were injured on Wednesday when armed groups fired two mortar shells on Bab al-Salam neighborhood in Old Damascus.
At least 13 people were killed and 77 others were wounded a day earlier when 114 rockets and mortar rounds landed on several neighborhoods in Damascus. The Syrian army responded to those attacks with “precise strikes,” SANA said, destroying rocket launchers and fortified positions used by the armed groups.
Eastern Ghouta is meant to be one of the so-called “de-escalation zones” agreed to in a deal struck by Russia, Turkey and Iran last year. In theory, such zones, also referred to as nonconflict or safe zones, are meant to be areas where civilians can live without being targeted by any party in Syria’s war.
Nonetheless, since November, hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in airstrikes and shelling across the country, according to the United Nations.
A UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy arrived in Eastern Ghouta last Wednesday. It was the first convoy to enter the area since November, Reuters reported.
UN chief ‘deeply alarmed’
UN Secretary-General António Guterres “is deeply alarmed by the escalating situation in Eastern Ghouta and its devastating impact on civilians,” according to a statement from a spokesman.
“The United Nations has repeatedly called for a cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded,” the statement said.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that the United States was “deeply concerned” by worsening violence in Eastern Ghouta, which has targeted hospitals and civilian infrastructure.
Nauert criticized the Assad regime, as well as its backers in Moscow. Russia, she said, “must end its support for the Assad regime and its allies,” and shares responsibility for the ongoing violence.
She also called for an immediate cessation of hostilities to allow for the delivery of desperately needed aid, and praised medical workers and first responders for their efforts to save civilians.
Asked Wednesday by reporters about claims that Russia is partially to blame for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred any questions to the Russian Defense Ministry.
“These are unsubstantiated accusations. It is unclear what they are based on, no specific information was given, and this is how we assess such accusations [based on specific information],” Peskov said. “We do not agree with these accusations.”