12 Aug 2015

Syria’s forgotten victims: the seige of Eastern Ghouta

Human Rights group Amnesty International says that over 160,000 civilians in the Eastern Ghouta region near the Syrian capital have been ‘left to die under siege’.

Views: © Lamba Media Production: Ruins of residential buildings in al-Masaken, destroyed by a Grad rocket fired by Syrian government forces on 16 by Syria Team

360 panorama of the destruction after months of shelling

According to Amnesty, the Syrian government has been carrying out aerial and shelling attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Eastern Ghouta since 2012. Between January and June this year around 500 civilians have died in government airstrikes that Amnesty says are often discriminate or grossly disproportionate.

Quoting the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Amnesty says that some parts of Eastern Ghouta have been under non-stop seige since 2013.

In addition the governemnt and rebel groups have restricted movement – trapping people in the area – and prevent food from reaching civilians. Since 2012 more than 200 people have died from starvation and a lack of access to adequate medical care, Amnesty said.

Chemical weapons

On 21 August 2013 over 730 people died when a chemical weapon hit Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta. At least 3,600 people were treated for symptoms of chemical exposure.

That attack caused an international outcry, but did not stop the fighting.

Eastern Ghouta (Reuters)

Thousands of civilians are now living “with little access to food, water, medicines, fuel or electrical power due to the ongoing blockade”, according to the Amnesty report.

In May 2014 the UN condemned a “deliberate attack on a humanitarian warehouse in Douma, Eastern Ghouta”, which it described as “evidence of the blatant disregard for International Humanitarian Law which is a disturbing feature of the conflict in Syria.”

Conditions have also been made worse by the actions of armed groups fighting the government.

Amnesty heard testimony that militants were selling food and basic goods at inflated prices and had arbitrarily prevented civilians leaving the area. One resident said “People who tried to request permission from the Army of Islam [a rebel group] to allow them to leave were arrested as a result.”

The Army of Islam and the al-Nusra Front were found by an Independent Commission of Inquiry to have been responsible for the abduction of hundreds of civilians in September 2014.

Government forces are using starvation as a weapon of war. Said Boumedouha, Amnesty

Amnesty International’s Acting Middle East and North Africa Director Said Boumedouha said: “For nearly three years the lives of civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been devastated by bloodshed and tragedy.

“They are trapped and surrounded by fighting on all fronts with no means to escape the unlawful aerial and shelling attacks waged by government forces.

“Their anguish is compounded by dwindling supplies of food, clean water and other crucial necessities which mean that daily life for many has become a prolonged experience of hardship and suffering.

“Government forces are using starvation as a weapon of war in flagrant violation of international law. Withholding food and basic supplies required to survive is a vicious act of cruelty amounting to collective punishment of the civilian population.”

Family photos amid the rubble of a home in Ghouta (Getty)

War crimes

Quoting a local monitoring group called the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, Amnesty says aerial and shelling attacks in the first half of 2015 have killed at least 462 civilians and 16 fighters in Eastern Ghouta.

Residential buildings, mosques, markets, a hospital and a school have all been destroyed, Amnesty said.

The report describes 13 “indiscriminate” attacks by Syrian regime fighter jets in that period in which 10 had “no legitimate military objective struck or present at or in the vicinity”.

Such indiscriminate attacks are “serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes”, says Amnesty.

Ongoing siege

In February 2014 the United Nations unanimously passed resolution 2139 and 2165 which demanded that all parties should allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, cease depriving civilians of food and medicine and enable the safe evacuation of those who wished to leave.

However Amnesty notes that well over a year later “the parties to the conflict continue to violate [the UN resolutions], and international law, with impunity”

According to the Syrian American Medical Society, which says it provides 60 per cent of the doctors in Eastern Ghouta, lack of food or access to medical care have caused the death of 208 civilians there between 21 October 2012 and 31 January 2015.

Amnesty has called on the UN Security Council, in particular Russia and China, to agree to the imposition of targeted sanctions against those responsible for war crimes, impose an arms embargo on the Syrian regime and refer the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court.