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Eastern Ghouta: Damned and Desperate

01 Mar 2018
By Leonard Blazeby and Flavia Abdurahman

On the outskirts of Damascus, in Eastern Ghouta, nearly half a million Syrians continue to suffer indiscriminate bombing and inadequate provision for humanitarian assistance. And the situation is only expected to get worse.

The human suffering in Eastern Ghouta is a consequence of a conflict without restraint. There are approximately 400,000 people under enormous pressure. And without the consent of all fighting parties—in addition to security guarantees from all sides—any ceasefire will only put civilians at greater risk. In these circumstances, humanitarian groups will not be able to deliver much-needed aid as their workers must have safe access to those in need. Throughout 2017, unfortunately the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) gained approval for access to Eastern Ghouta only 5 times.

Any promised “humanitarian corridors” in Eastern Ghouta must be well-planned and must be implemented with the consent of all parties on all sides. The ICRC is not part of this initiative, but it is ready to play a role as a neutral humanitarian intermediary if all the parties are in favor.

For those in Eastern Ghouta who decide to leave of their free will, a measure of safety during their departure must be guaranteed. All measures should be taken to provide them with assistance, protection and shelter. Those who remain must be protected from any attacks and it is essential that life-saving humanitarian supplies be allowed in immediately.

The situation on the ground in Eastern Ghouta is dire and the people are desperate. In some areas, people have no safe place to go or are hiding underground. Families are terrified with the intensity of the shelling increasing. This circle of death and suffering is overwhelming. With sadness, the ICRC has seen that, as a result of indiscriminate shelling from both sides, hate speech has emerged on social media. People are turning against each other, losing their sense of unity and love for each other. There is no containing the hatred. This is something the ICRC wishes it hadn’t witnessed on such a scale. We call upon parties to recognise the human cost of the current escalation and take that thought into consideration when using weapons.

Many lives could have been saved in the past days, if only the laws of war had been respected by all sides. The rules of targeting—distinction, proportionality and precaution—must be applied. There is a need to make a distinction between military targets and civilians or civilian objects. The warring parties must bear in mind both the direct and indirect effects of their attacks, particularly on essential infrastructure, such as healthcare facilities and water installations, which are often struck several times.

Medical and rescue services are overstretched. The ICRC has received reports of multiple health facilities hit by airstrikes and shelling. The capacity to offer any sort of medical care in Ghouta is diminishing. The ICRC is calling upon parties to immediately allow medical supplies to people in need.

It must be stressed that the population needs access to medicines. Many medical cases in Eastern Ghouta, be it the sick or wounded, would have been able to get the necessary treatment if medicines had been regularly delivered to the area. An equally urgent priority is that food and other daily essentials must be delivered to the people inside Ghouta.

What is now important for the ICRC is to obtain, independently of any ceasefire, the necessary security guarantees, from all sides, in order to be able to proceed and deliver aid. It is impossible to deliver humanitarian assistance effectively in the space of five hours. Preparation for an aid convoy is a complex and lengthy task. It requires extensive coordination with all sides to get aid across frontlines and to ensure that the teams and trucks loaded with aid reach the population in all safety.

The ICRC has long experience of bringing aid across frontlines in Syria and knows that it may take up to a full day simply to pass checkpoints, even with prior agreement from all parties. Then there needs to be time to offload the goods, perhaps dozens of truckloads. Our staff have, in the past, had to spend the night in certain locations, despite the security risks to themselves, as there was no other way to bring life-saving aid to those in need.

Aid is usually delivered to ICRC warehouses and later distributed to those who are in need, by committed volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). The aid is never delivered to any local councils or local NGOs. Together with the SARC teams, the ICRC does all it can to monitor the distribution process across the country and make sure that the aid reaches the most vulnerable.

The ICRC is in continuous discussion with the SARC, as well as with other humanitarian actors, to determine the best way forward and the most urgent needs. Most workers in the SARC are volunteers. It is sad to note that two sub-branches of the SARC, in Douma and Harasta, were damaged during the recent fighting, with three volunteers injured in Douma. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, 65 SARC volunteers have been killed.

Only a sustainable political solution will provide respite to the Syrian people. In the meantime, humanitarian organisations can lessen the suffering, but cannot solve the problem.

While only a political solution can stop the devastation, it is important to recall that aid must not be linked to any political agreement or deal. With or without a ceasefire, humanitarian groups should be allowed to do their work at all times and deliver aid on a regular basis to those who are in need. Humanitarian action must remain separate from the political process.

The current view is that the situation will only get worse. So, while the ICRC offers its humanitarian services to limit the effects of the fighting, we also call for restraint.

Leonard Blazeby is the head of mission for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Australia. In this role he works to foster support for the ICRC’s global operations and to promote international humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles.

Flavia Abdurahman is the communications officer at ICRC Australia. She has worked in many conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan, India, South Africa and Uganda, documenting in particular the conditions for women, domestic violence and women’s potential to heal broken communities. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.