Wednesday 18 July 2018

Syria: Bombs rain on Damascus suburb for third day as death toll continues to climb

  • Government backed shelling enters third day
  • More than 250 killed since Sunday
  • Health workers killed in assault
  • Scenes of devastation spark outrage around the globe
  • UNICEF issues blank statement - saying there are no more words
A child walks near damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A child walks near damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Bethan McKernan

Mortar shells and bombs are raining on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus as a ferocious attack by the Syrian government enters its third day.

By local counts more than 150 people have been killed by intense shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes on Eastern Ghouta since overnight on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll had risen to 250 in just 48 hours.

Many bodies are still trapped under rubble. Overwhelmed first responders are struggling to keep up with the demands of the injured, let alone take care of the dead.

Ghaith, a wounded 12-year-old boy, cries as he receives treatment at a make-shift hospital. Photo: Getty Images
Ghaith, a wounded 12-year-old boy, cries as he receives treatment at a make-shift hospital. Photo: Getty Images
In this photo released on Tuesday Feb. 20, 2018 provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows members of the Syrian Civil Defense extinguishing a store during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
Syrian children cry at a make-shift hospital in Douma following air strikes on the Syrian village of Mesraba in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-AjwehHAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images
An injured man is trapped under the rubble of a damaged building in the besieged eastern Ghoua region on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus (above).Photo: AP
An injured Syrian man who was wounded by the shelling of the Syrian government forces, waits to receive treatment at a makeshift hospital, in Ghouta, suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Ghouta Media Center via AP)
This photo released Tuesday Feb. 20, 2018, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows members of the Syrian Civil Defense group carrying a man who was wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, via AP)
An injured man is seen at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
An injured man covered with blood is seen at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
People sit a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A young man rides bicycle near damaged houses in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A child walks near damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

At least two health workers have been killed in the assault, according to the Union of Medical and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which runs hospitals in opposition-held Syria, as well as one White Helmets volunteer who was responding to a bombing.

On Tuesday, resident Wassim Khatib said he feared the death toll would be even worse than the previous day as three war planes droned overhead and the booms of strikes could be heard in the background.

“I can’t think straight. People are so afraid,” he told The UK Independent.

Hundreds of people have been injured and at least seven medical facilities hit by air strikes as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies step up the onslaught ahead of what is anticipated to be a final ground assault to crush the rebel enclave once and for all.

Many families are taking shelter in basements and makeshift tunnels underground in the districts of Old Damascus, Bab Touma, Abu Rummaneh which were once used to smuggle in fuel, medicine and machinery.

Ghouta is one of four supposed de-escalation zones created in a May 2017 agreement brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran to quell fighting between rebel forces and the regime – but the recent violence there been some of the most brutal of Syria’s civil war, now entering its eighth year.

The Damascus suburb has been besieged by government forces for years and was also the scene of a sarin and chlorine gas attack in 2013, one of the worst chemical incidents in modern history.

Rebel infighting is rife, and the Syrian government says it controlled by factions allied to extremists groups such as al Qaeda.

In recent months, however, Mr Assad’s government has tightened the siege, leaving its 400,000 civilians struggling with dwindling food and medical supplies. At the same time, it has stepped up the military campaign.

The tactics echo several other battles in Syria's war, including Homs, Daraya and Aleppo.

“Russia is supposed to be a guarantor, but instead it is propping up this violence, saying it is killing terrorists,” Bassma Kodmani, a senior negotiator from the opposition Syrian National Council, told The Independent.

“Killing 100 civilians for one terrorist is a terrible strategy.

An injured man is seen at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
An injured man is seen at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT

“We Syrians see and share all these pictures of death, but I don’t know if the scale of the horror is obvious to other people.

“After seven years of war I think maybe this is the most terrible aspect of it all, the fatigue. Since [the fall of Aleppo in December 2016] it has been hard to convey that the rest of Syria is still suffering.”

On Tuesday the UN’s Children’s Fund expressed its outrage at the violence by releasing a blank statement, arguing “no words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones.”

The message from Unicef’s regional director Geert Cappelaere contained ten empty lines with quotation marks to indicate the missing text before finishing with a footnote.

“We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage,” it said.

“Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

This photo released Tuesday Feb. 20, 2018, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows members of the Syrian Civil Defense group carrying a man who was wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, via AP)
This photo released Tuesday Feb. 20, 2018, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows members of the Syrian Civil Defense group carrying a man who was wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, via AP)

UN officials have repeatedly called for a immediate cessation of hostilities in Ghouta and the resumption of aid shipments.

The fall of the eastern rebel-held side of Aleppo at the end of 2016 marked a turning point in Syria’s conflict, shifting the tide of the war in President Assad’s favour.

After more than seven years of fighting which has left half a million people dead and caused half of the pre-war population of 18 million to flee their homes, however, the war is far from over.

“The UN tells them to stop, and what? Nothing,” said Mr Khatib. “And more people die every minute.”

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