In Ghouta’s shel­ters, ter­ri­fied civil­ians await the next bomb


BEIRUT: As the Syr­ian army pushes deeper into Eastern Ghouta un­der cover of a ham­mer­ing bom­bard­ment, the 400,000 civil­ians the UN says live in the en­clave have crowded into dark base­ments to cower from the cease­less bombs.

Un­der cracked ceil­ings that bulge down­wards from the force of pre­vi­ous strikes, they string sheets across the base­ment to par­ti­tion off rooms for en­tire fam­i­lies.

“Look at it. It is com­pletely un­in­hab­it­able. It is not even safe to put chick­ens in. There is no bath­room, just one toi­let, and there are 300 peo­ple,” said a man in a shel­ter in the re­gion’s big­gest ur­ban cen­ter, Douma.

Like the other peo­ple in the shel­ter he did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals as the army at­tempts to re­take the op­po­si­tion en­clave.

The in­ten­sity of the of­fen­sive has pro­voked con­dem­na­tion from Western coun­tries and pleas from UN agen­cies for a hu­man­i­tar­ian halt.

The as­sault tar­geted an area that has been bomb at­tack. Long cuts were vis­i­ble on his shoul­der and the crown of his head, which the medic cleaned.

Small chil­dren helped with wash­ing up — rins­ing foamy de­ter­gent off stain­less steel dishes with dirty wa­ter from a small jug. In such con­di­tions, hy­giene be­comes in­creas­ingly hard to main­tain.

“Three hun­dred peo­ple liv­ing in dan­ger and we are forced to live like this... old and young and sick,” said the man.

Many of the peo­ple hud­dled in Douma’s shel­ters had al­ready fled from other parts of the en­clave, some of them many times over to es­cape the ev­er­shift­ing front lines.

Over­head, steel re­bars were vis­i­ble in the large cracks and de­pres­sions of a con­crete ceil­ing that seemed poised to col­lapse over the shel­ter’s ter­ri­fied in­hab­i­tants at any new blast nearby.

“If any­one is lis­ten­ing, (think of) the Syr­ian chil­dren in Ghouta. The whole world, even the Arab coun­tries, have aban­doned them. We are so tired. Pray for us, pray for us,” she said.

The UN says chil­dren are at more risk than ever in the dev­as­tat­ing con­flict.

The UN chil­dren’s agency UNICEF re­ported a 50 per­cent in­crease in the number of chil­dren killed in the con­flict last year com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year.

“In 2017, ex­treme and in­dis­crim­i­nate vi­o­lence killed the high­est ever number of chil­dren — 50 per­cent more than 2016,” it said, adding that 2018 was off to an even worse start.

More than 200 chil­dren have been killed in bom­bard­ment of Eastern Ghouta by Syr­ian regime and al­lied forces since Fe­bru­ary, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights.

The mon­i­tor­ing group says chil­dren ac­count for around a fifth of all civil­ian vic­tims of the as­sault.

The UN agency quoted a child from south­ern Syria named Sami, who is now a refugee in Jor­dan.

“I went out­side to play in the snow with my cousins. A bomb hit. I saw my cousin’s hands fly­ing in front of me. I lost both my legs,” he said.

Dis­abled chil­dren “face a very real risk of be­ing ne­glected and stig­ma­tized as the un­re­lent­ing con­flict con­tin­ues,” said Geert Cap­pelaere, UNICEF re­gional direc­tor.

Ac­cord­ing to the UN agency, an es­ti­mated 3.3 mil­lion chil­dren are ex­posed to ex­plo­sive haz­ards across the coun­try. Dozens of schools were hit in 2017 alone.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights says chil­dren ac­count for around a fifth of all civil­ian vic­tims of the on­go­ing as­sault in Eastern Ghouta. (Reuters)

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