In response to an escalation of hostilities in Eastern Ghouta including reports of nearly 100 people killed by aerial and artillery attacks yesterday, Mark Schnellbaecher, International Rescue Committee’s Middle East Regional Director, said:

“Once again we are seeing civilians in Syria being killed indiscriminately. Once again we are seeing medical facilities attacked. We have long feared Eastern Ghouta will see a repeat of the terrible scenes observed by the world during the fall of East Aleppo and these fears seem to be well founded.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified. People are sheltering for their lives in basements and dug out make-shift shelters. Thousands have fled their homes in recent weeks but there is nowhere safe for them to run to.

“Civilians in Eastern Ghouta have suffered daily bombardment, as well as four years of besiegement and the blocking of aid, which have not only contributed to a medical emergency but also a food crisis that has left many children dangerously malnourished.

“The ferocity of the current bombardment means only the most urgent cases are being treated at IRC supported health clinics. It’s just too dangerous for anyone else to travel to seek medical help.

"Civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been treated as pawns throughout this siege. This has to stop and the international community can make it stop."

The International Rescue Committee supports five partner-run medical facilities in Eastern Ghouta covering salaries for both medical and non-medical staff as well as basic operating costs, medicines and medical supplies. 

A tightening of the siege July caused a sharp rise in prices and subsequently a food crisis which by November had left 12% of under 5s with acute malnutrition. Since January the IRC and its partner have been providing nutritional supplements to more than 3,000 malnourished children in the enclave.

According to the IRC’s partners medical staff are stretched to their greatest extent since the area came under siege four years ago. Health workers have resorted to reusing syringes, and families expired medicine, and there are thousands with chronic diseases suffering. In addition, more than 700 people in Eastern Ghouta are in need of urgent medical evacuation.

For several years, attacks from Eastern Ghouta have also occurred regularly, with 11 people killed from mortar fire in Damascus in January alone. In November, the UN reported 200 mortars and rockets were fired from Eastern Ghouta into residential neighbourhoods of Damascus resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries.

Nearly 400,000 people live in Eastern Ghouta, and parts have been besieged for over four years. Around half of the population have been displaced by the conflict, with 16% living in unfinished or abandoned buildings. Several neighbourhoods are riddled with explosives.

Residents have told the IRC that children are facing the brunt in Eastern Ghouta. As well as the widespread malnutrition, schools have been closed since the beginning of January because of the increased attacks. Many children have to work to help bring in money to help their families buy food.

A first-person account

A Syrian paramedic who works for one of the IRC’s local partner organizations says that rescue workers and medics have been overwhelmed as the battle for control of the last major rebel stronghold near the capital has escalated. A father of three young children, he describes what it’s like to live and work under siege in Eastern Ghouta.