Doctors and civilians in the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta have published open letters asking for their safe passage under the supervision of international guarantors, as forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad continue a military offensive that has lasted nearly a month and killed more than 1,500 civilians.
Their messages came as Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, took control of two more towns in the region bordering the capital Damascus, which housed 300,000 civilians. A mass exodus of tens of thousands of men, women and children continues.
“Doctors in East Ghouta ask for immediate and unconditional evacuation for them, their families, and all the civilians,” wrote the signatories, who include civil leaders.
“People are trapped in the middle between the advancement and bombardment of the forces of the regime and its allies, and the armed groups on ground. In some areas, the armed groups are preventing civilians and medical teams from leaving Ghouta, in another, the brutal bombardment and shelling of the regime and its allies prevent civilians from leaving underground rooms, seeking safety.”
In another open letter, civilian activists and residents of eastern Ghouta also called for safe passage with guarantees, including freedom of movement to other parts of Syria, a ceasefire and the lifting of the ongoing siege. They also asked for civilians to be part of the negotiations for a possible deal to end the violence.
Medics and activists are at risk of possible retribution, and hospitals in opposition-controlled areas have been systematically targeted during the war.
The Assad regime and its allies last month launched a major military offensive into eastern Ghouta, once the breadbasket of the capital, to crush the last opposition stronghold near Damascus. Local relief groups estimate that more than 1,500 civilians have been killed, with more casualties likely still buried under the rubble of homes.
Turkey claims to have encircled Afrin, besieging up to 200,000
On Saturday government forces captured two additional towns in eastern Ghouta, Saqba and Kafr Batna. Eastern Ghouta is now divided into three blockaded patches of territory that are rapidly shrinking under the government’s onslaught. The three main rebel groups issued a joint statement declaring their readiness to negotiate directly with Moscow, Assad’s main backer, to implement a ceasefire. But the violence has continued in the meantime, with 98 people killed on Friday, according to local civilian authorities.
The bombardment is taking place despite a UN security council resolution passed three weeks ago, supported by Russia, that called for an immediate month-long ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
“Ghouta is being annihilated,” said one rescue worker. “People can’t find food, or a place to sleep. We have children and women still under [the rubble of] their homes that we cannot reach. The dead are in the streets.”
He added: “Ghouta will be annihilated if we don’t do something, there is no more time. The wounded we have are in the thousands, and many will be eventually among the dead.”
Regime troops now control more than 80% of eastern Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Civilians continued to stream out of rebel-controlled territory on Saturday, seeking any shelter from the bombardment by fleeing to areas under government control. After an initial exodus of some 12,000 civilians, mostly children, women and the elderly on Thursday, the observatory said the number had reached 50,000. Most are being housed in camps near Damascus, according to the UN.
But activists, doctors and military-age men fear that leaving the area without guarantees will subject them to possible retribution for their activities in opposition-controlled areas or forced recruitment into the military.
“We urge the United Nations and members of the security council, and those with the ability to influence on the ground, to ensure that the residents of Eastern Ghouta are provided with safe corridors within Eastern Ghouta and between Eastern Ghouta and the rest of the Syrian territories,” said the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian human rights group, in a statement. “We urge that there be sufficient international pressure to compel the Syrian government and its allies to lift the siege on the Eastern Ghouta and open humanitarian crossings and end the systematic starvation exercised by the Syrian government on civilians.”
Top UN officials and western countries have repeatedly condemned the ongoing violence in Ghouta, which in 2013 was attacked with sarin gas in the worst chemical atrocity of the war, killing more than 1,200 people. Secretary general António Guterres called it “hell on earth” and the high commissioner for human rights described the ongoing campaign as a “monstrous annihilation”.
“My visit to Syria this week reinforces my view that wars across the region have reached a frightening new normal,” Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said. “Tit-for-tat battles of retribution increase in intensity with no regard for their devastating impact on civilians.
“The level of suffering in Eastern Ghouta is the latest example, joining Afrin and Mosul, Sana’a and Taiz,” he added. “Too often destruction seems to be the goal as the basic standards of humanity are ignored.”
Letter to the UN
We, the Civil society organisations and members, write this letter to express our deep concerns of this outrageous international failure to safe civilians in East Ghouta. We write this letter to pass a message we received from doctors in East Ghouta to the world leaders, UN, civil societies, and NGOs to take an immediate action to stop the massacres in East Ghouta, and set a process for immediate unconditional civilian evacuation.
Doctors in East Ghouta, ask for immediate and unconditional evacuation for them, their families, and all the civilians. People are trapped in the middle between the advancement and bombardment of the forces of the regime and its allies, and the armed groups on ground. In some areas, the armed groups are preventing civilians and medical teams from leaving Ghouta, in another, the brutal bombardment and shelling of the regime and its allies prevent civilians from leaving underground rooms, seeking safety. Even when humanitarian corridors are available, physicians, and civilians themselves request international guarantors so the scenario of Ghouta will not copycat of Aleppo.
What is happening in East Ghouta now, indicates hollowness, inefficacy, and moral bankruptcy of the international community. It also shows that the international society supports the Syrian government’s harrowing push for an outright victory. We strongly condemn, the international community, for its complicity in the massacres of East Ghouta. We condemn the International parties’ inability to back up 30-day ceasefire across East Ghouta and Syria to allow for emergency humanitarian deliveries and medical evacuations for critically wounded, or chronically ill patients, or even to evacuate the casualties of the current attacks on East Ghouta.
World leaders, UN agencies, civil societies, INGOs, and SNGOs, must act today, and have a plan to protect hundreds of thousands of civilians that remain trapped within East Ghouta awaiting their fate including medical teams, and humanitarian workers.
As civil society members, we call for:
Serious immediate negotiations that can lead to unconditional evacuation of all civilians to where they feel safe and protected.
Civilians, especially physicians and paramedics, should be able to choose the place and the city they want to go to, as they have remained to save civilian lives, and not to be forced to go to Idlb.
We insist on the presence of independent observers such as the UN or other external actors to be present, and for civilian evacuations not be allowed to mask political objectives such as population swaps.
Start a mechanism for monitoring this process so what happened in East Aleppo will not happen in East Ghouta.
The signatories, who include doctors and members of civil society in Ghouta, have not been disclosed to protect their identities