Why Syrians in besieged eastern Ghouta refuse to leave

If raw fear of ongoing violence is one factor preventing civilians from approaching the designated exit corridor, an even greater hurdle is a lack of trust – of the Assad regime and its Russian backers.

Syrian Red Crescent/Reuters
Syrian Red Crescent volunteers hand out medical supplies to civilians in eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 5. It was the first humanitarian aid convoy to enter the besieged enclave in several weeks.

Hope came to the embattled Syrian region of eastern Ghouta today, as a 46-truck convoy carrying food and humanitarian supplies entered the rebel enclave for the first time in weeks.

But before the United Nations convoy could enter, Syrian officials ordered the removal of 70 percent of the medical supplies, Reuters reported: trauma kits and surgical and other medical gear that might help the 400,000 besieged residents cope with two weeks of unrelenting bombing by Syrian regime forces and Russia planes.

And inside eastern Ghouta – a suburb of Damascus where a weeklong cease-fire demanded by the UN Security Council appears to be nonexistent – the air strikes and artillery bombardment continued, even during the aid delivery, which prevented some trucks from being unloaded. With more than 50 people reported killed Monday alone, the death toll for the past 15 days soared past 700. State TV reported that a ground offensive launched by regime forces has recaptured 40 percent of the enclave in recent days, in an apparent bid to slice in half the last rebel stronghold near the capital.

President Bashar al-Assad, in remarks broadcast on state television Sunday, said the fight against Islamists in eastern Ghouta won’t stop, and that the “majority” of its residents “want to escape the embrace of terrorism.” Reports of dire humanitarian need, he added, were “ridiculous lies.”

But despite an agonizing scale of deprivation, residents say they do not see the logic of leaving, and would rather risk further regime attack than exit into an unknown and possibly vengeful future in regime hands. It is a choice that tells much about the state of Syria’s brutal war after seven years, and the violent reputation of a regime accused repeatedly of war crimes and known for retribution.

If raw fear of ongoing violence is one factor preventing civilians from approaching the designated exit corridor, an even greater hurdle is a lack of trust.

“The only corridor out of Ghouta is the corridor of death,” says Amer Zeidan, a bearded volunteer Syrian aid worker who each day delivers food and water to basement shelters.

“Even if the regime was being genuine, we cannot trust it,” Mr. Zeidan told the Monitor in a series of voice messages. “You can’t trust the murderer who has been killing men and women, the children and elderly, on a daily basis. In the same moment that they say there is an open humanitarian corridor, war planes are dropping bombs.”

Eastern Ghouta has been controlled by anti-regime rebels since 2012, besieged by government forces since 2013, and was the scene that year of a high-profile chemical weapons attack with sarin and chlorine that killed hundreds and nearly prompted then-President Obama to launch military strikes against the regime.

Syrian Red Crescent/AP
Civilians desperate for food and medicine gather near a convoy of vehicles of the Syrian Red Crescent in Douma, eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Monday, March. 5, 2018. Shelling continued during the day, and some trucks reportedly left the enclave without unloading.

The convoy Monday delivered 5,500 food parcels for 27,500 people and was “a positive first step,” Robert Mardini, the International Committee of the Red Cross regional director, said in a statement. “But one convoy, however big, will never be enough given the dire conditions and shortages people are facing.”

“We delivered as much as we could amidst shelling,” tweeted Sajjad Malik, the UNHCR country representative for Syria, amid reports that, long after dark, the convoy was ordered back before it could offload all its aid.

Also Monday, two airstrikes brought down the building where Nemaat Mohsen, a former Damascus University student, had been sheltering in the basement. Afterwards she said it was a “complete catastrophe,” and her family members incurred “minor injuries,” before her phone again lost its signal. Last week she told the Monitor that civilian areas were being targeted “so heavily that it made the front lines look safe.”

And the state Syrian Arab News Agency said Monday that 15 civilians had been wounded by mortar fire from eastern Ghouta. It said the shelling struck the Tishreen Hospital and the Police Hospital in the Damascus countryside.

For Zeidan, nearly unfathomable examples of the residents’ extreme suffering are updated constantly. He speaks of a mother beseeching doctors and nurses not to prolong the life of her critically wounded child, telling them to “leave my son to die in peace, I don’t want him to be tortured more than this,” because she knew they lacked the means to save him.

He tells of two pregnant women sheltering in the basement of his building, both of whom suffered miscarriages amid the stress and confinement. Food is so scarce that 10 people are allotted less than one pound of rice total per day, says Zeidan. Many must go without food for 36 hours at a time.

And yet, few if any from eastern Ghouta have risked leaving.

“The cease-fire was not implemented. On the contrary, there is an escalation,” says Zeidan. “Imagine the Russians, whose warplanes have killed children for the last three years, are the guarantors for families to leave eastern Ghouta. How can this work out?”

Residents of eastern Ghouta are sheltering in schools, mosques, basements, and makeshift underground shelters that have sometimes collapsed over them during the shelling. Some have dug individual-sized, grave-like trenches to sit out the worst  bombardments.

Loophole in UN cease-fire

Panos Moumtzis, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, called for warring factions to respect the UN cease-fire.

“Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed,” Mr. Moumtzis said in a statement Sunday. “This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable.”

However the cease-fire resolution, which was passed unanimously by the UN Security Council Feb. 24 and calls for a 30-day cessation of hostilities to ensure a “durable humanitarian pause” across the country, explicitly does not apply to attacks on Al Qaeda and other jihadists.

The White House laid the blame for the eastern Ghouta onslaught on Syria and its main military backer, Russia. In its strongest statement to date about eastern Ghouta, it accused them of ignoring the UN and Russia’s own self-declared truce “to kill innocent civilians under the false auspices of counterterrorism operations.”

Ghouta was one of four de-escalation zones created in May 2017 in a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran to reduce hostilities. But Damascus and Moscow maintain that the deal excludes extremist factions present in eastern Ghouta.

The dominant rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, Jeish al-Islam and Failak al-Rahman, are Islamist in outlook and stand accused of human rights violations, but have also taken part in past peace talks. A jihadist alliance led by Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria also has a presence there, but in smaller numbers, and other groups are said to have offered to flush them out during negotiations.

None of that makes any difference to the civilians of eastern Ghouta, who have been subject to regime leaflet drops aimed at pressuring them to leave the enclave.

One leaflet outlined plans for a “safe exit,” with a basic diagram showing two areas for safe assembly, one in the neighborhood of Arbeen and the other in the town of Douma. Northeast of Douma lies the Al-Wafideen crossing point, historically the gateway of limited goods into the besieged area in exchange for hefty kickbacks, and now designated as a humanitarian corridor.

'Surrender document' not trusted

Another leaflet provides step-by-step advice on how to approach the crossing, telling residents they should carry an identity document and come forward slowly, raising the leaflet with one hand while keeping the second hand visible on their head or holding a child, all the while following the directions of security forces stationed at the crossing.

“We guarantee your return home after terrorism is exterminated,” the text reads.

That promise rings hollow for Douma residents like Samira, who see the flyers as yet another weapon in the vast arsenal that has been deployed against the opposition stronghold.

“The regime is using these flyers as part of its psychological war against us,” says Samira, a mother who says she has spent much of the offensive above ground, partly so she can rush with her heavily pregnant daughter to hospital for delivery, when that time comes, and partly to minimize breathing problems in cramped spaces.

“The regime claims that this surrender document is the only thing that can take the besieged person out of the hell of the siege and into the paradise of the regime,” says Samira, contacted by phone. “But until now, we haven’t seen or heard of anyone getting out this way.”

Another aid worker, Wajih Mohammed, says the street leading to the humanitarian corridor comes under constant shelling and sniper fire. He echoes the fear of a replay of Aleppo, where evacuations were marred by deadly violence as pro-regime forces seized control of opposition-held areas in December 2016.

That campaign claimed hundreds of lives, and residents of eastern Ghouta fear a similar fate as pro-regime forces gain ground and hundreds are forced to move deeper into rebel-held territory.

“A truce could happen if it was truly guaranteed by the international community – France, Britain, the United States,” says Mr. Mohammed. “Not this truce where the guarantor’s warplanes bomb civilians.”

Dangerous walk to uncertainty

Sami al-Shami, a media activist, notes that the corridor is far from civilian areas anyway and would require a long walk exposed to shelling and bombs.

Reaching the corridor “is a huge security risk,” he told The Monitor over social media. “People are scared that what happened in eastern Aleppo will happen to them, that they will be targeted along the way.”

Samira says she hopes a real cease-fire can be put in place and the siege lifted until a comprehensive political solution is found. But residents mock the logic of leaving under heavy bombardment, only to return to the fold of a government that attacked them for years.

“People are scared the regime will treat them as terrorists, arrest them, and take revenge on them,” she says.

“The entry of regime forces without a political solution is considered certain death by residents of Ghouta, particularly the young men,” says Samira. “People want the war to end and for the government of Bashar al-Assad to end with it.”

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