'We were dying in there': Thousands of Syrians flee eastern Ghouta in largest single-day exodus

Syrians civilians evacuated from the Eastern Ghouta, pass with belongings through the regime-controlled corridor opened by government forces in Hawsh al-Ashaari, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 15, 2018.
Syrians civilians evacuated from the Eastern Ghouta, pass with belongings through the regime-controlled corridor opened by government forces in Hawsh al-Ashaari, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 15, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - Thousands of exhausted civilians streamed out of the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta on Thursday (March 15), the largest single-day exodus from the embattled region since the start of a punishing government offensive last month.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and tracks the conflict though a network of contacts, said as many as 20,000 people had fled the region for government-held areas.

Video of beleaguered civilians carrying satchels and children, some piled high onto trucks and tractors, aired on Syrian state news media. Some people had been wounded in the recent airstrikes by Syria and its Russian allies that have reduced much of the area to rubble.

The mass migration served as a new reminder of the 7-year-old war's great cost to Syria's civilians and the brutal means the government has used to crush the remnants of the rebel movement that sought to topple it.

Many left on foot, carrying what they could on their backs. Trucks, vans and buses crammed with civilians and their belongings traveled dirt roads, while huge crowds milled around waiting for transportation. The booming of the continuing bombardment echoed as the government pressed its offensive against neighboring towns.

The intensity of the government assault left civilians in a confused panic, said Mohammad Adel, an activist in Douma. Though the majority evacuated to government-controlled areas, he said, some fled farther into rebel territory because they feared the government.

"There was no food, no medicine, nothing," a woman leaving the enclave said on Syrian state television. "We were dying in there."

Marwan Habaq, whose family was from Arbin, said he, his wife and infant daughter had spent the past month fleeing the bombardment, each trip more dangerous than the last.

"We don't know what will happen," Habaq said in a voice message, the sound of rocket fire in the background.

"I run to Hammouriyeh, they bomb it. I run to Zamalka, more bombing is ahead of us."

About 1,200 civilians have been killed since the Syrian government began its campaign to take the area last month.

The roughly 400,000 people the United Nations estimates are in the area have faced harrowing challenges. The UN Security Council endorsed a 30-day cease-fire for the region nearly a month ago, but attacks have continued unabated. While government warplanes drop bombs, rebel snipers on the ground have shot civilians trying to reach the government side.

For many, the bleak situation in eastern Ghouta reflected the state of the war seven years to the day after the first protests that led to Syria's conflict. Inspired by Arab Spring revolts in other countries, Syrians in a number of areas took to the streets to demand political changes. The government responded with force and the conflict escalated.

Now, the rebel movement that had once controlled large parts of Syria holds very few areas, and civilians are leaving.

The war has been characterized throughout by increasing brutality.

U.N. investigators said Thursday that Syrian government troops and affiliated militias had raped and sexually assaulted women and men in a systematic campaign to terrorize, humiliate and punish civilians seen as linked to the opposition - actions that amounted to crimes against humanity.

Opposition armed groups had also committed rapes and sexual violence. Although such acts by rebels were "considerably less common," the investigators said, extremists had carried out executions and harsh punishments to enforce their rigid social order.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry monitoring Syria's conflict said it had documented the rape of women and girls in 20 government detention facilities and military intelligence branches between 2011 and 2016, and the same violence against men and boys in 15 branches.

Such attacks were "not isolated incidents but rather part of a pattern observed countrywide," the investigators said in 29-page report, which the panel's chairman, Paolo Pinheiro, said was "based on 454 powerful, devastating interviews" with victims and witnesses.

The panel's hope, he added, was that the report would serve as "an equally powerful trigger for accountability," he told a meeting at the United Nations in Geneva. It was "particularly repulsive" that such violence continued to go unpunished, he said.

During house raids searching for opposition supporters in the early years of the conflict, troops and militias raped women and forced family members to watch the assault, the panel said.

In detention centers, guards subjected women to humiliating invasive searches, gang rapes and torture to force confessions and extract information. Low-ranking officers were often the perpetrators, the panel found, but "numerous cases of rapes by high-level officers have also been documented."

Male detainees, some as young as 11, also suffered a wide range of sexual abuse, including rape, torture and genital mutilation. Investigators said they had documented such abuse in the political security and military intelligence branches in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib, Tartus and Damascus, including the infamous Sednaya Prison, sometimes "seemingly for amusement."

Rape and sexual violence by armed opposition groups was not systematic, the panel said, but throughout the conflict it had received regular reports of extremist groups attacking people suspected of being gay, including throwing them off rooftops.

Militant groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State had sentenced women accused of adultery to death by stoning, and subjected women who violated their dress codes to lashings. In areas controlled by Islamic State, women and girls as young as 14 were forced to marry fighters.