Sick civilians leave Syrian Eastern Ghouta amid siege

Sick civilians leave Syrian Eastern Ghouta amid siege
Two dozen civilians in need of medical care were evacuated on Wednesday from Syria’s besieged rebel enclave near the capital, Damascus
3 min read
14 March, 2018
Ghouta, under siege from the regime, is in much need for aid [Getty]
Two dozen civilians in need of medical care were evacuated on Wednesday from Syria’s besieged rebel enclave near the capital, Damascus, the latest trickle of urgent cases to leave the area amid an ongoing military offensive as government forces advance.

Local authorities in Harasta, one of the towns in eastern Ghouta, meanwhile, said they have been cut off from the rest of the rebel-held enclave, isolating 20,000 residents with no access to medical aid or supplies.

A spokesman for a medical charity said the isolation meant that Harasta and another cut-off pocket have not been able to send patients out in the evacuation.

A list of least 1,034 patients, including 72 urgent cases, for evacuation from eastern Ghouta has been drawn up, said Mohamad Katoub, of the Syrian American Medical Society, which oversees a number of medical facilities there.

The evacuation is part of a deal negotiated by the United Nations to allow urgent medical cases to leave the rebel-held enclave to government-held Damascus for treatment. About 150 patients and their families left the enclave on Tuesday.

Government forces have recently split the enclave in two and cut off the towns of Douma and Harasta after their offensive intensified in February. Opposition activists say more than 1,100 civilians have been killed since mid-February.

On Wednesday, activists reported continued bombings of the enclave. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian Civil Defense first responders, known as White Helmets, said Kfar Batna, a town in the southwestern corner of the enclave was particularly heavily bombed since Tuesday.

A video by the White Helmets shows rescuers rushing to a neighborhood in the town, scrambling to find survivors and unable to pick up the dead amid continuing bombing. A couple of women emerge from a cloud of smoke, walking over a pile of debris to get to the rescuers.

Meanwhile, Syrian state-run TV broadcast footage of the patients exiting eastern Ghouta. In the footage, about a dozen residents, mostly women and children, many looking haggard and carrying a few belongings, are seen walking out of the enclave through the corridor manned by Syrian soldiers that links between the rebel-held enclave and Damascus. At least two ambulances and a bus brought patients and their families to the area. The broadcaster said 25 people were evacuated.

One resident told the state-run TV that he was happy to get out of eastern Ghouta safely. “I hope all people manage to get out. They all wish to get out. But they (rebel fighters) are not letting them out,” the unnamed resident said. “It is not up to us. It is up to them.”

There is an estimated 400,000 residents trapped in eastern Ghouta.

Despite a UN cease-fire, the government’s military offensive continued against the region, only miles from the Syrian capital and in rebel hands since 2012.

Russia ordered a daily humanitarian pause late last month, but almost no left during the breaks. Russia and the Syrian government said rebels have prevented the residents from leaving, while rebel fighters say the Russia-ordered humanitarian corridor contravenes UN standards for safe and voluntary evacuation.

The largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam, negotiated the medical evacuation but vowed to continue fighting till the last man.

A member of the local council of Harasta said residents have been in underground shelters for long periods amid heavy bombardment. He said government forces have seized local cemeteries, forcing residents to bury their dead elsewhere. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of safety concerns.