Hunger at Damascus’ door as Syrian government blocks aid

This file photo shows an injured boy receiving treatment at a hospital in Ghouta, an opposition-controlled suburb of Damascus, Syria. (AP)
Updated 14 December 2017
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Hunger at Damascus’ door as Syrian government blocks aid

BEIRUT: At the doors of the Syrian capital, children with wrinkled faces and arms like sticks are going hungry because President Bashar Assad’s forces, supported by Russia and Iran, are blocking trucks filled with humanitarian relief.
As the government and its opponents wrap up another fruitless round of talks in Geneva, humanitarian officials warn that conditions outside Damascus have reached crisis levels, with the government maintaining a siege on the Eastern Ghouta suburbs that has trapped close to 400,000 people without enough food, fuel or medicine for the winter.
They say patients with empty stomachs and kidney failure are dying in their beds while waiting for evacuation to hospitals just minutes away.
The fighting in Syria’s nearly seven-year war has tapered off in many areas since local cease-fires took hold, but the suffering in Eastern Ghouta — Damascus’ once fertile hinterland, now cut off from the world — has only gotten worse.
According to the UN, roughly one in eight children are malnourished in Eastern Ghouta — a shocking jump from one in 50 in May.
A top UN humanitarian official for Syria, Jan Egeland, said last week the government is refusing to allow convoys in. It has also refused to approve a list of nearly 500 people urgently needing medical evacuation.
“We have people here who are only eating a meal every two or three days,” Ismael Yasin, a member of Eastern Ghouta’s local council told The Associated Press via Skype. “People’s faces are turning yellow from hunger.”
The siege cast a cloud over the eighth round of UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, which concluded Thursday without any results. The head of the opposition’s delegation, Nasr Hariri, said the impasse on Eastern Ghouta reflected the international community’s “shame, impotence, and dereliction.”
“It’s shameful that we have to go into negotiations so that they (the government) give us some loaves of bread,” said Hariri.
The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called the Eastern Ghouta blockade and others like it a “medieval” approach to war. Amnesty International said last month that the government’s use of sieges against civilians — a tactic it called “surrender or starve” — was a crime against humanity.
But the tactic has proven brutally effective for the government, which in the last two years has managed to recapture a constellation of towns around Damascus using the same playbook. In Zabadani and Daraya, the government executed its strategy so completely that it managed to completely depopulate the two towns, which had a combined population of about 100,000 people before the war.
The government has followed the same strategy to restore its authority over the cities of Aleppo and Homs. The government denies besieging opposition areas, saying the militants, whom it refers to as “terrorists,” withhold aid.
At least three rebel factions still claim a presence in Eastern Ghouta, and send shells whistling into the capital on a daily basis.
In mid-November, a powerful faction called Ahrar Al-Sham captured parts of a military base in the region, prompting the government to respond with waves of airstrikes and shelling that killed over 200 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Ahrar Al-Sham said it attacked the base in response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
Shortages have gotten so dire that residents are eating out of the trash and parents are skipping meals so their children can eat, Jakob Kern, the World Food Program’s top official in Syria, told The Associated Press.
“They look exhausted, they look tired, and there is this despair in their eyes,” said Kern, who entered Eastern Ghouta with one of the few aid convoys the government has allowed in recent weeks.
The convoys have provided just a trickle of relief — supplies for tens of thousands of people that will last only a month or less, at a time when hundreds of thousands are in need.
Photos from Eastern Ghouta show children gaunt with hunger, their skin wrinkled and aged. Mothers are not producing milk to feed their infants, and baby formula is too scarce and expensive for most families to afford. Driven by desperation, some residents are trying to eat animal fodder.
Since at least 2015, there have been Syrians dying every winter of starvation and other medical ailments made worse by the bitter cold. Families in besieged areas, as well as camps for the displaced, burn furniture, plastics, and even the doorframes and roof supports of their homes to cook and stay warm, as the cost of fuel has soared far beyond reach for most.
Much of the country, including the hilly terrain around Damascus, sees freezing rain and snow in the winter months.
Egeland said last week that 12 people have died waiting for medical evacuation from Eastern Ghouta. They were on a UN-drawn list first submitted six months ago that has yet to be approved by the government, and now contains 494 names. The UN’s children agency said Sunday that 137 children require immediate evacuation for conditions that include kidney failure, severe malnutrition and conflict wounds.
Egeland, in pointed remarks in Geneva, placed full blame on the government for impeding aid shipments across the country.
Eastern Ghouta saw large protests in the early days of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against Assad. Government forces surrounded the area in 2013, but for most of the last four years, they turned a blind eye to tunnels and above-ground smuggling. Activists say local commanders made huge sums of money from checkpoint bribes, and traders got rich selling to a captive market. Patches of farmland also provided some food.
The government tightened the noose this year, closing the tunnels and nearly all the crossings. Food in Eastern Ghouta at one point was up to 85 times more expensive than in Damascus, just a few minutes’ drive away, according to the WFP.
“We need for the siege to be lifted,” said Anas Al-Dimashqi, a local media activist. “Not just in front of the cameras, as the government does every now and then.”


Several killed in attack on military parade in southwest Iran: State TV

Updated 11 min 29 sec ago
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Several killed in attack on military parade in southwest Iran: State TV

  • Paramedics could be seen helping someone in military fatigues laying on the ground
  • Saturday's attack comes after a coordinated June 7, 2017 Daesh assault on parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran

TEHRAN: Gunmen attacked a military parade in the southwest Iranian city of Ahvaz on Saturday, killing and wounding several people, state TV reported.

The report described the assailants as "Takifiri gunmen," a term previously used to describe Daesh.

The semi-official Fars news agency, which is close to the elite Revolutionary Guard, said two gunmen on a motorcycle wearing khaki uniforms carried out the attack.

State television showed images of the immediate aftermath. In it, paramedics could be seen helping someone in military fatigues laying on the ground. Other armed security personnel shouted at each other in front of what appeared to be a viewing stand for the parade.

The semi-official ISNA news agency published photographs of the attack's aftermath, with bloodied troops in dress uniforms helping each other walk away. The attack struck on Ahvaz's Quds, or Jerusalem, Boulevard.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Saturday's attack comes after a coordinated June 7, 2017 Dash assault on parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. That attack had at that point been the only one by the extremists inside of Iran, which has been deeply involved in the wars in Iraq and Syria where the militants once held vast territory.

At least 18 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the 2017 attack that saw gunmen carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and explosives storm the parliament complex where a legislative session had been in progress, starting an hours-long siege. Meanwhile, gunmen and suicide bombers also struck outside Khomeini's mausoleum on Tehran's southern outskirts. Khomeini led the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Western-backed shah to become Iran's first supreme leader until his death in 1989.

Ahvaz is the capital of Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province. The province in the past has seen Arab separatists attack oil pipelines.

The assault shocked Tehran, which largely has avoided militant attacks in the decades after the tumult surrounding the Islamic Revolution.