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)