February 21, 2018

Children bombed and starved, schools attacked in horrific siege of Eastern Ghouta

A child is rescued from her bombed home in Hamorya City, Eastern Ghouta

Photo credit: White Helmets

The escalating battle for control of the rebel-held Syrian region is taking a terrible toll on its people - young and old.

The world is watching. But the people bombing the hell out of Eastern Ghouta don't seem to care about the international outrage.

Three days of air strikes, rocket attacks and artillery bombardment by Syrian government forces left more than 250 civilians dead - including at least 50 children - in the besieged region outside the capital Damascus. Another 1200 were injured.

The escalating battle for control of the rebel-held towns and villages is being likened to the horror of Aleppo, where parts of the historic city were reduced to rubble.

“Children in Eastern Ghouta are being starved, bombed and trapped," said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director.

Another child is rushed to safety - but at least 50 have been killed in recent attacks on Eastern Ghouta

Photo credit: The White Helmets / Twitter

"Schools are supposed to be safe places for children, protected under international law, yet they are being attacked every single day. Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit."

The charity's partners in Syria say 45 schools in Eastern Ghouta have been attacked since the start of January, with 11 completely destroyed. Many other schools have closed for days at a time because of the danger.

Attacks on school and hospitals during conflict are violations of international law. Syria has not signed the Safe Schools Declaration - an international commitment to protect education from attacks and stop the military use of schools. So far, 72 countries have signed.

Of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, only one has backed the declaration. Theirworld's Safe Schools petition urges Russia, China, the United States and United Kingdom to follow France's leadership.

The bombing of Eastern Ghouta intensified on February 18, leading to fears of an impending ground assault. The following day the UN called for an immediate ceasefire, saying the situation was "spiralling out of control" after an "extreme escalation in hostilities".

February 19 was the single bloodiest day in four years, with 127 civilians including 39 children killed in the bombardment.

UNICEF issued a statement showing a blank page, followed by: "We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage. Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?"

The violence in Eastern Ghouta is part of a wider escalation in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

As government forces fired rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the towns and villages, resident Bilal Abu Salah, 22, said: “We are waiting our turn to die.”

OCHA, the UN's humanitarian affairs agency, said the siege of Eastern Ghouta has left young children particularly vulnerable to malnutrition.

"Malnutrition rates have now reached unprecedented levels, with 11.9% of children under five years old acutely malnourished – the highest rate recorded in Syria since the beginning of the crisis," said Panos Moumtzis, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis.

Eastern Ghouta is home to about 400,000 people who have been almost completely cut off from humanitarian assistance since 2013.

Almost one in three school-age children in Syria - an estimated 1.75 million - are not in education and a third of schools are damaged or destroyed.

A teenage boy has been telling how his education was disrupted by the fighting.

Muhammad Najem, 15, told i News: "I am in eighth grade but I stopped studying three months ago because of the constant bombardment of the place in which I live. 

"My school was bombed by warplanes more than once - but after each raid we would return and try to complete our studies. 

"But my school was bombed until it was completely destroyed and I no longer have a classroom within which to study or a playground to play in."

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