Syria's Ghouta residents 'wait to die' as bombs fall

Pro-govt forces escalate assault on rebel-held enclave; watchdog says more than 300 killed

An injured boy being carried away from the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel-held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, in Syria's eastern Ghouta district, yesterday.
An injured boy being carried away from the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel-held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, in Syria's eastern Ghouta district, yesterday.

BEIRUT/GENEVA • Residents of Syria's eastern Ghouta district yesterday said they were waiting their "turn to die", amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 10 people died in one village and more than 200 were injured early yesterday. And at least 296 people have been killed in the besieged district in the last three days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor based in Britain.

A further 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control.

Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces since 2013.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

"We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say," said Mr Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in Douma, the biggest eastern Ghouta town.

"Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets," he said.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been hit on Tuesday.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed President Bashar al-Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians, and deny using the inaccurate barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the UN.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of the Assad government said that the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighbourhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

"The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing," the commander said.

The bloodshed prompted UN children's agency Unicef to issue a largely blank statement saying "we no longer have the words to describe children's suffering", while UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply alarmed" by the escalation of violence.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding two people yesterday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

Conditions in eastern Ghouta had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

The International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday called for humanitarian access to eastern Ghouta to deliver aid, especially to the wounded in critical need of treatment.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline Syria's Ghouta residents 'wait to die' as bombs fall. Subscribe