Commentary: Syrians face a new crisis in Ghouta — and the world looks away

Source: Chicago Tribune

Mom, does God love us?” asked Nour, a 6-year-old child in the town of Erbin, Syria. Nour was terrified and unable to sleep. Her mom hugged her and her sister in the basement of their building. By Thursday the sounds of bombs and airstrikes had not stopped for five days.

In besieged Ghouta, an area much smaller than Chicago on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, hundreds of airstrikes, surface-to-surface missile attacks and artillery bombs have rained down from Syrian and Russian war machines. At least 400 people have been killed and 1,800 injured, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

There is a sense that the world has deserted the Syrians. The United Nations estimates that half a million Syrians have been killed. One quarter of the population are refugees, and 6.1 million are internally displaced. Cities have been destroyed and chemical weapons have been used more than 180 times, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Syrians are stuck in hell. Fifteen Syrian refugees trying to cross the border were found frozen to death in northern Lebanon, among them three children, the U.N. reported. All countries bordering on Syria have locked their borders.

The world response is to look the other way. The United Nations Security Council on Thursday failed even to pass a resolution for a 30-day humanitarian ceasefire in Ghouta. The Russian envoy said that “it was not realistic.”

Ghouta has been under siege since 2012 by forces controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Iranian militia. The United Nations agencies responsible for humanitarian aid were blocked by Assad’s government from entering the besieged area, the same way they were blocked from entering previously besieged areas in Aleppo, Homs, Moadamiya, Daraya and Zabadani. ACAPS, an independent group that collects data about humanitarian crises, estimates that about 400,000 people live under siege, and 70 percent of them are women, children and elderly. According to the U.N., the level of severe malnutrition among Ghouta’s children is the gravest since the beginning of the crisis and worse than that of sub-Saharan Africa.

I spoke with Dr. Abdallah Alzeir, the director of one of the few remaining hospitals in the region. He has nine family members who disappeared in the regime’s prisons including his 79-year-old mother and two sisters. His hospital treated hundreds of the victims of sarin gas attack in August 2013. He lost two doctors due to exposure to the nerve gas from their patients in addition to the 861 patients who died that night. He told me horror stories about the current ordeal. The operating rooms in his hospital dug underground for protection and worked nonstop to save the lives of the human flood of children, women and men injured during the airstrikes. He did not sleep for three days. Two doctors had just been killed.

There are only 110 doctors, among them 40 medical students, left to serve the entire population in Ghouta. Among them there are only one neurosurgeon and two vascular surgeons. Dr. Alzeir told me that nurses and dentists are performing surgeries because of the shortage of doctors. Nongovernmental medical organizations are not allowed into Ghouta. A few courageous organizations, such as the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, have been supporting hospitals by sending life-saving medical supplies, medications and funds.

Dr. Alzeir told me that they have a severe shortage of basic medical supplies, such as intravenous fluid, gauze, pain medications and even antibiotics. His hospital was targeted recently and it was partially destroyed but continued to operate. There is no other choice. More than 22 hospitals and medical centers were bombed within a few days, a tactic routinely used by the Syrian regime to destroy civilian infrastructure in order to force the population to surrender. According to Physicians for Human Rights, more than 480 hospitals have been bombed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.

Doctors, including Dr. Alzeir and his colleagues, have been pleading to the international community to protect hospitals and enforce the Geneva Conventions. They have been appealing for a break in the siege and an end to the gas attacks.

I asked Dr. Alzeir what he wants the world to know. He said: “Stop the bombing, allow food and medicine and evacuate the patients.”

At a recent prayer vigil at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, organized by the Syria Faith Initiative, a network of diverse and concerned faith leaders, the Rev. Nicholas Sooy, director of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, said, “I care and you should also care. We need to stop the bombing. Everyone should ask himself, ‘What would Jesus do?’ ” The answer is that he would not turn away.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, is president and co-founder of MedGlobal, a nonprofit organization of medical volunteers that provides free health care in disaster and underserved areas.