For 24 days I hoped that the people of Ghouta would soon be able to take a breath of fresh air without smelling the stench of death that has taken over every street, every corner, every home for over a month. I hoped that in passing the UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which asked for a 30-day cessation of hostilities, the world’s most powerful countries would finally manage to protect civilians in Syria. But yet again the resolution proved to be nothing more than a waste of ink.
The attack on Ghouta – a suburb of the capital Damascus – has been ongoing for over a month. More than 1,300 civilians have been killed and another 4,000 have been injured. All kinds of weapons have been used against civilians: barrel bombs, cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, missiles. Undoubtedly the most vicious strategy has been the use of poisonous gases like Chlorine to force people out of the basements they have been hiding in to then be hit by air attacks.
The onslaught is too intense for the White Helmets to be able to retrieve all the bodies from under the rubble. The targeting of our response efforts and centres has destroyed most of our equipment. One volunteer was killed on Friday when he was targeted as he was running to a rescue center after his ambulance was struck by shelling. He was the 10th White Helmet volunteer killed in this most recent assault. The teams on the ground are living through one long judgment day.
The scenario we witnessed in Aleppo is being repeated in Ghouta: the Syrian regime and Russia are pursuing a scorched-earth warfare strategy with the backing of Iranian and Lebanese militias. They are telling the world that they are opening “humanitarian corridors”, but we call those “death corridors”. Civilians who try to flee through these routes to regime-controlled areas are still being targeted. Many have been killed. The regime used thousands of fleeing civilians as human shields in front of their tanks to conquer the town of Hammuriyeh – dozens were killed in the process.
Inside Ghouta remain thousands that make up the enclave’s resilient civil society: the doctors who work 72-hour shifts with no sleep, the teachers who continue teach in basements and the White Helmets who are still saving lives, many of whom you supported with funds and words over the last few years. These people have been systematically targeted by the regime and its allies for years and they are still facing a grave risk. If they are left unprotected, they will be the first to be arrested or killed by regime forces. We should not doubt the Syrian regime’s capability for mass execution or large-scale detention. Indeed this is one of the defining characteristics of Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Today I say to the signatories to the United Nations Security Resolution: your ceasefire failed. Now the very least you can do is guarantee that civilians who wish to travel to other parts of Syrian territory have the right and protection to do so. All those who seek “evacuation” from Ghouta must be protected from systematic killing and mass executions. I hope whatever fragment of your conscience remains might decide to do something to allow civilians leave what the UN has described as “hell on earth”.
By Raed al-Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defence (the White Helmets).