‘Life-saving’ medical supplies withheld from first aid convoy to enter East Ghouta in weeks

AMMAN: The Syrian government withheld “life-saving” medical supplies from the first aid convoy to enter besieged East Ghouta since a deadly assault on the enclave intensified last month, humanitarian sources and local officials told Syria Direct.

The 46-truck convoy, which reached rebel-held East Ghouta’s de facto capital of Douma on Monday, carried “health and nutrition supplies, along with food for 27,500 people in need,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) spokeswoman Linda Tom told Syria Direct from Damascus.

The United Nations (UN), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) took part in the joint convoy. Aid for a total of 70,000 people is approved to enter East Ghouta this week, according to UNOCHA.

Monday’s interagency aid convoy included health supplies such as “surgical items, burn dressings and primary healthcare medicines,” Ingy Sedky, an ICRC spokeswoman in Damascus, told Syria Direct. However, “many life-saving health supplies were not allowed” to enter, she added.

Douma Local Council member Majd a-Deen Bakour said that expected trauma kits and surgical materials were not delivered on Monday. “There are medical trucks that were completely emptied,” he said. The local council coordinates with humanitarian agencies to plan for and distribute aid deliveries.

A humanitarian aid convoy enters Douma city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Red Crescent.

Syrian government forces have encircled rebel-held East Ghouta—home to an estimated 400,000 people—since 2013.

Monday’s aid convoy is the first to enter East Ghouta since pro-government intensified bombings and ground attacks on the area on February 18. Since then, artillery fire, airstrikes and rocket attacks on towns and cities across the enclave have left more than 700 civilians dead and thousands injured.

During the same period, hundreds of shells allegedly fired by rebel groups inside East Ghouta struck neighborhoods in government-held Damascus, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 200.

The last humanitarian aid convoy to enter East Ghouta took place on February 14 and provided aid parcels for 7,200 residents, Syria Direct reported at the time.

‘No contradiction between a truce and combat operations’

Syrian state media said military operations “continued” in East Ghouta on Monday, even as aid entered the pocket.

Following weeks of heavy airstrikes and shelling, pro-government forces began to advance on the ground in the area this past Thursday.

Since then, pro-Assad troops captured a number of towns in the east of the rebel-held pocket, including the towns of Nashabieh and Otaya, according to state media.

“Army units advanced from several directions, clearing several towns and farms from terrorists,” Syrian state media outlet SANA reported on Sunday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Monday that pro-government forces recaptured one third of the rebel-held enclave in the latest advances.

Today, approximately three kilometers separate pro-government forces advancing from the eastern edge of East Ghouta with their counterparts to the west. Any further advances could split the opposition-held pocket in two.

Ground advances by government forces sparked large-scale displacement in recent days, local sources told Syria Direct on Monday.

In Douma, an influx of civilians fleeing the Ghouta towns of Otaya, Misraba and Howsh a-Thawahira is “greater than what the city can accommodate,” Radwan Ghanoum, a former member of the local council told Syria Direct on Monday.

Cellars and basements in the city, which are being used by residents as bomb shelters, “are barely enough for residents” he added. “There are people sleeping in barns with the cows.”

Fleeing heavy bombings, residents streamed out of the central Ghouta city of Misraba in recent days. Anas al-Kholi, who fled Misraba for the nearby town of Kafr Batna, said his hometown was left “nearly empty because of the intense bombings.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on state television on Sunday that government military operations are continuing during daily “humanitarian pauses” in East Ghouta that were unilaterally announced by Russia last week. The pauses, which take place between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm local time, are meant to allow civilian residents to leave via a corridor at al-Wafideen camp, in the northeast of the rebel-held pocket.

“The progress achieved yesterday and the day before in Ghouta by the Syrian Arab Army was made during this truce,” Assad said.

“There is no contradiction between a truce and combat operations,” he added.

SANA, however, reported that recent government advances took place “outside the specified truce periods” on the same day as Assad’s television appearance.

Virtually no civilians have departed East Ghouta via the corridor since the pauses began last Tuesday, Syria Direct reported.

Russia and the Syrian government accuse rebels in the pocket of shelling the humanitarian corridor to prevent civilians from leaving. Rebels deny the accusations.

Russian state media claimed on Monday that East Ghouta rebels “promised to allow civilians to leave the area in exchange for humanitarian aid,” citing unnamed “journalists.”

With additional reporting by Leila al-Ahmad and Lina al-Abed.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.