Relentless aerial bombardment and shelling by Syrian government forces is magnifying the suffering of civilians trapped under siege and facing an escalating humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ghouta, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.
‘Left to die under siege’: War crimes and human rights abuses in Eastern Ghouta, Syria reveals damning evidence of war crimes and describes the Syrian government’s siege on Eastern Ghouta and unlawful killing of its besieged civilians, occurring as part of a widespread as well as systematic attack on the civilian population, as amounting to crimes against humanity. The report also highlights the agonizing struggle to survive of more than 163,000 people living under siege in Eastern Ghouta, as well as exposing abuses by non-state armed groups in the area.
“For nearly three years the lives of civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been devastated by bloodshed and tragedy. They are trapped and surrounded by fighting on all fronts with no means to escape the unlawful aerial and shelling attacks waged by government forces. Their anguish is compounded by dwindling supplies of food, clean water and other crucial necessities which mean that daily life for many has become a prolonged experience of hardship and suffering,” said Said Boumedouha, Acting Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
War crimes by government forces
Between January and June 2015 Syrian government forces carried out at least 60 aerial attacks on Eastern Ghouta killing around 500 civilians. The report documents 13 air strikes and other attacks amounting to war crimes, which killed 231 civilians and only three fighters. In 10 cases no military target could be identified in the vicinity suggesting the strikes were direct attacks on civilians or at best indiscriminate. In the remaining three cases the attacks appeared grossly disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate.
Many public places that were struck were crammed full of civilians including a crowded public market, a school while students were nearby and the vicinity of a mosque soon after Friday prayers.
Satellite imagery analysis shows that aerial attacks carried out between 28 December and 10 February have completely destroyed multiple residential buildings in the vicinity of Taha mosque in Douma. One eyewitness said that he saw nine bodies scattered on the streets near the mosque killed by an airstrike on 9 February. He added that residential buildings, an underground field hospital and a school were also destroyed.
On the same day, Amir witnessed another strike on another mosque in Douma. He described to Amnesty International how displaced families including children were killed in the attack that struck al-Ansar mosque in Douma where they had sought refuge. “Nowhere is safe,” he said.
Public markets are also on the list of Syrian government’s targets. “It was a disaster,” one eyewitness said describing the aftermath of the attack on the market in Kafr Batna on 5 February. Residents said the attack took place at 1pm– the “busiest hour of the day” – and also destroyed two nearby residential buildings. There was no trace of a military target nearby.
In a similarly shocking attack on 25 January Syrian air force jets bombed a market in Hamouria shortly after Friday prayers as crowds of people poured out of a nearby mosque to buy sugar sold that day at a discounted price, killing more than 40 civilians. “I could only see blood. It was horrific, like nothing I have seen before,” an eyewitness said.
“The timing and location of these attacks appear deliberately orchestrated to maximize damage or civilian casualties in a gruesome attempt by the Syrian government forces to terrorize the population. All attacks on civilians and civilian buildings or infrastructure must end,” said Said Boumedouha.
Syrian government forces also repeatedly fired imprecise rockets and mortars or unguided bombs into populated areas in a series of direct and indiscriminate attacks on civilians amounting to war crimes.
“By repeatedly bombing heavily populated areas in a series of direct, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks as well as by unlawfully besieging civilians, Syrian government forces have committed war crimes and displayed a sinister callousness towards Eastern Ghouta’s civilians,” said Said Boumedouha.
Life under siege – a struggle to survive
In addition to daily bombardments, living conditions for civilians of Eastern Ghouta have continued to deteriorate. Residents have limited access to food, clean water or medical care and essential supplies including electricity and fuel. Checkpoints controlled either by government forces or armed groups restrict their movements into and out of Eastern Ghouta. Government forces have also denied UN agencies and other humanitarian actors free access to the area.
More than 200 people have died from starvation or lack of access to adequate medical care in Eastern Ghouta between 21 October 2012 and 31 January 2015 according to the Syrian American Medical Society.
An emerging black market “war economy” has seen smugglers and members of armed groups or government officials profit at the expense of civilians. Syrian government forces routinely confiscate food at checkpoints forcing residents to buy goods on the black market often for up to 10 times the price of goods in central Damascus.
Marwan, a local resident from Jesrine, said he had lost more than 15kg in weight because of the siege. He spent days without eating in order to ensure his four children and wife could eat once a day. “What will it take for the United Nations to do something about it? Is starvation the only answer?” he said.
“Government forces are using starvation as a weapon of war in flagrant violation of international law. Withholding food and basic supplies required to survive is a vicious act of cruelty amounting to collective punishment of the civilian population,” said Said Boumedouha.
Residents also said Army of Islam (Jaysh al Islam) fighters and their families had abundant food while civilians were forced to pay hugely inflated prices.
The report discloses that non-state armed groups, particularly the Army of Islam, are guilty of an array of abuses including abductions, arbitrary detentions and indiscriminate shelling. Their use of imprecise weapons such as mortars and Grad rockets in populated areas amounts to war crimes.
“Widespread violations by the Syrian government do not excuse the appalling behaviour of the Army of Islam who have also waged indiscriminate attacks, failed to protect civilians and deprived them of access to food or medical care. Civilians of Eastern Ghouta are essentially caught in between two hostile sides vying for their own gain,” said Said Boumedouha.
International action desperately needed
More than a year ago the UN Security Council adopted two resolutions intended to alleviate the suffering of Syria’s civilians, calling on all parties to the conflict to end attacks on civilians, lift all sieges, grant unfettered humanitarian access and release anyone arbitrarily detained. So far however, they have failed to assuage the suffering of most civilians.
“The aim of these resolutions was precisely to protect civilians and prevent a full scale humanitarian disaster. Yet so far the UN Security Council has looked on as the resolutions continue to be openly flouted and the crisis grows steadily worse, despite commitments to take further steps to ensure they are enforced. Such steps are desperately overdue,” said Said Boumedouha.
“Perpetrators of the crimes under international law that we are witnessing in Syria must no longer be allowed to escape justice. As long as Russia blocks the Security Council from referring the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, justice remains a distant prospect,” said Said Boumedouha.
The Security Council must urgently impose targeted sanctions against all parties to the conflict in Syria responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity as well as an arms embargo on the Syrian government. The Syrian government should ensure unfettered access for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to the country as well as other human rights monitors including Amnesty International.