While the West focuses on the collapse of so-called Islamic State in Syria, in the suburbs of the capital Damascus people are dying under a worsening siege by government forces.
The United Nations has warned that some 400,000 civilians in the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta face “complete catastrophe” as bombings intensify, and aid deliveries are blocked.
The fighting now seems to be returning to some of the “bleakest days” of the conflict, Jan Egeland, the Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, said on Thursday (Nov. 9).
The area is one of four de-escalation zones set up earlier this year as part of an internationally brokered ceasefire deal, but opposition activists and charities on the ground say bombings have intensified in recent weeks.
Hospitals have been destroyed, and lacking basic equipment, doctors are taking desperate measures to care for the wounded.
“All of the medical supplies that usually have to be used only one time for instance here in Europe or in France or in any other country, over there they’re just trying to clean them,” Mohammad Alolaiwy, president of the France-based Syria Charity, told Euronews in an interview.
“All medical supplies – you can imagine, for surgery, for everything, they are always reused. And they are of course not able to sterilise them properly.”
Syria Charity’s ambulance working in eastern Ghouta has already been hit twice by bombings, he said.
The four-year old siege of eastern Ghouta has caused prices to skyrocket, putting food and basic supplies beyond reach.
Baby milk is running short, and at least 1,200 children in eastern Ghouta suffer from malnutrition, with 1,500 more at risk, UNICEF said last month.
AFP news agency recently tweeted a harrowing photo of a one-month old baby who died of starvation just a few days later.
Such photos have caused outrage, and a UN convoy entered the enclave of eastern Ghouta last week for the first time since June 2016, carrying aid for 40,000 people.
“This is absolutely not enough – this is almost nothing,” Alolaiwy said. “The NGOs working on the ground have been able to enter food supplies way more than this UN convoy – through tunnels, through other ways. This is absolutely not enough. We need a proper humanitarian response to let all the NGOs enter this area and be able to do their jobs.”
“Horrific” winter looms
The fact the Syrian army this week declared victory over the Islamic State militant group has fueled fears of an even tougher crackdown on remaining opposition strongholds like Ghouta.
“The fear is that now the Syrian regime forces have defeated Islamic State in the eastern zone, now they are going to concentrate on Ghouta, on the Damascus suburbs, to eradicate everything – to do exactly what has been done in Aleppo a few months ago,” Alolaiwy said.
Eastern Ghouta was hit in 2013 by a devastating chemical attack that sparked international outrage.
Today there are concerns that daily living conditions could get even worse as winter closes in and temperatures drop.
The UN’s Egeland stressed that the population has been through seven years of war, longer than World War II.
“With little, if any, reserves, no heat in their houses and living amid ruin, [for them] it will be a horrific winter,” he warned.