CONDITIONS in and around the besieged Syrian capital of Damascus have become desperate in the wake of fresh air strikes, ground bombings, and chlorine attacks, international aid agencies have warned.
At least 277 civilians, including more than 40 children, were killed in just 72 hours last week in the Eastern Ghouta area of rural Damascus, and the city of Idlib, of whom 230 died in air strikes conducted by the Syrian government and its allies.
A further 812 people were injured in what the United Nations has described as one of the deadliest periods in nearly seven years of conflict in the country. The sustained siege in Eastern Ghouta has been ongoing since 2013.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has called for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation of violence in the war-torn country.
“The no-holds-barred nature of this assault is evidenced by reports that at least nine medical facilities, six of them in Idlib and three in Eastern Ghouta, were hit by air strikes,” he said in a statement. “Even by Syria’s atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments — and a cruel irony given that both have been declared ‘de-escalation areas’.”
Christian Aid said this week that the violent onslaught against civilians, schools, and hospitals in the regions had forced survivors, including pregnant mothers, to retreat into cellars and basements under the city, without water or electricity.
Babies are being born in a “living hell” underground because the risk of injury or death in hospitals and homes above ground is too high, Christian Aid’s emergency programme officer for Syria, Dr Máiréad Collins, said.
Two weeks ago, a local partner reported that 46 babies were born in 48-hours. Some of the births had taken place in medical clinics forced to operate underground.
“The situation has seriously escalated in recent weeks,” Dr Collins said on Wednesday. “The aerial shelling destroyed residential areas, and our partner’s centre manager was killed in the shelling of his house, and other staff have lost their homes also.
“There is a huge lack of shelter for civilians across the area, which is forcing people to use unsafe and ill-equipped underground shelters. In some areas which have experienced a more long-term bombardment, they have had to resort to underground shelter for weeks on end.”
There are an estimated 400,000 people still trapped in the city, including children and the elderly, the charity reported. Its local partners are working to deliver food and medical aid at night, when shelling is less aggressive.
Christian Aid has joined the UN and other agencies in calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Meanwhile, suspected chlorine attacks were carried out against civilians in the city of Idlib, south-west of Aleppo. There were no reported deaths. It comes after a chemical attack in Douma last month in which at least 20 people were killed.
The director of World Vision’s Syria response, Wynn Flaten, said: “Last week’s chlorine attack was a harrowing reminder of the horrors children there face every single day. It’s impossible for us to imagine the extreme effect this is having on the mental, physical, and social health of the future generation of children who will need to rebuild Syria.”
Other parts of Syria continued to be affected by past or current fighting by multiple parties, including government air strikes in areas still under the control of Islamic State, in the east of the country, Mr Al Hussein reported. Large numbers of civilians continue to be put at risk, he said. “The greatest threat now faced by civilians in such areas are improvised explosive devices and other explosive remnants of war.”