‘No human being can bear such suffering...this has to stop’: ICRC on East Ghouta’s humanitarian crisis

When Ingy Sedky visited the besieged, opposition-held suburbs east of Damascus last month, she saw desperation at an unprecedented level.

“I was surrounded in the street by mothers who kept screaming and shouting because they couldn’t feed their children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman tells Syria Direct’s Avery Edelman from her office in Damascus. 

Sedky entered the East Ghouta suburbs—which have been under siege by pro-government forces since 2013—on November 12 as part of a rare aid convoy headed for the enclave’s de facto capital of Douma city. It was the first aid delivered to Douma in almost three months.

Although East Ghouta has been part of a Russian-backed “de-escalation deal” since May, aid deliveries have been not only infrequent, but also insufficient for 400,000 residents who face critical shortages of food, medicine and fuel. The encirclement of the suburbs remains in place.

A November UNICEF study found that 12 percent of children under the age of five in East Ghouta suffer from acute malnutrition. A separate assessment by the World Food Programme in November found that residents were forced to consume “expired food, animal fodder and refuse” in recent months as the siege intensified.

Civil Defense rescuers in Hamouriyah, East Ghouta on December 3. Photo courtesy of Civil Defense.

Just two days after the November 12 convoy, pro-government forces launched dozens of airstrikes on the opposition-held suburbs in the largest wave of bombing to take place there in months. The attacks came hours after rebel groups attacked a Syrian army base on the outskirts of the pocket.

Airstrikes and shelling by government forces and allies on East Ghouta have continued almost daily since, leaving dozens dead and hundreds of others injured.

The ongoing violence has further limited the ability of humanitarian organizations to deliver aid.

“With the escalation of fighting in the area, it’s impossible for us to go in,” says Sedky.

Q: If parties to the conflict are unable to resolve the fighting in East Ghouta in the near future, what is your outlook for residents of the besieged pocket?

We know from previous experience here in Syria that the situation can only deteriorate further.

There is a huge lack of food right now. There are people who are wounded and sick, people who have chronic diseases, or serious illnesses like cancer, kidney failure, diabetes. They have no access whatsoever to proper medical care.

And we know that in winter, whether there is fighting or not, the situation is very precarious. We’ve seen in other places, for instance, that people begin to burn their own furniture in order to get some sort of heating. There is almost no fuel inside Eastern Ghouta.

We don’t want to reach the point where people will not be able to live anymore. No human being can bear such suffering for a long time, and this has to stop. People need to have access as soon as possible to the necessary humanitarian aid. 

An aid convoy enters Douma on November 12. Photo courtesy of Syrian Red Crescent.

Q: On Monday, the ICRC declared that the suffering in East Ghouta has reached a “critical point.” What circumstances led the ICRC to make that determination now, after so many years of a government siege?

We were last in Douma on November 12, before the recent fighting started. We could clearly notice the deterioration of the humanitarian situation there in comparison to our [previous] visit, which was in August.

People were so, so frustrated. They were really angry, especially the mothers. I was surrounded in the street by mothers who kept screaming and shouting because they couldn’t feed their children on a daily basis. Some of them would tell me, for instance, that they go for days and days eating only soups or boiled corn because that’s all they can afford. They were completely desperate, because they cannot provide for the needs of their children on a daily basis.

That wasn’t the case in August. In August, you could find some food available within Douma. The shops were open, and you could find fruits, vegetables, and bread.

But [in November], there was very little food remaining. Most of the shops were closed and, consequently, the prices of whatever was available had dramatically increased. They were telling me a pack of bread would cost $10, although in other places in Syria, you can find it for 50 cents. The price of sugar was $25. And you can buy it [elsewhere] for 50 cents as well. In such a situation, how can people afford it?

Then, on November 14, the fighting escalated. So the situation is worsening and it was already dire. Now it’s becoming even worse because there has been non-stop fighting for over a month.

Q: What were the conditions that allowed for the ICRC to deliver aid at that time, and how do they differ from the current conditions?

In order to access any area, be it Eastern Ghouta or elsewhere in Syria, it takes a lot of time to coordinate. First of all, to coordinate with the different parties fighting in this area, to get their permission and approval in order to make sure that whenever we deliver aid we will not be shot on the way. So these kinds of security guarantees are essential for us to deliver aid.

We were able to obtain [those guarantees] back in November, but now, with the escalation of fighting in the area, it’s impossible for us to go in. It’s not only about us being exposed to additional risk, but it also means we cannot reach the population safely.

No matter how many trucks we can bring in one convoy, it will never sustain the population for more than one month. So this is what we keep reminding the parties about. And we keep on calling for humanitarian aid to be allowed on a regular basis and without any kind of conditions.

It is not acceptable that we go [in] every three or four months, because clearly the situation will deteriorate further. And what we bring [in] after four months will never be enough for the population.

Q: What is the ICRC doing now to coordinate with the Syrian government to deliver aid to East Ghouta?

We continue to coordinate with all of the parties, not only one party or another. We keep pushing in order to go back to the area and to be able to deliver the necessary aid.

However, the situation now is really intense. It’s affecting Eastern Ghouta and it affects some neighborhoods in the city of Damascus.

The civilians are the ones paying the price. They’re trapped in this situation and they’re paying the price of a conflict they have absolutely nothing to do with.

Q: Is there any particular party that is preventing the aid from getting in?

We never point finger at one side or another. For us, it’s a shared responsibility between the parties and they should come to a solution all together. They have to come to an agreement—a solution—that puts the needs of civilians first.

What we call for is to put an end to this fighting and for the parties to reach an agreement as soon as possible in order to end this unbearable suffering of the population in Eastern Ghouta.

Avery Edelman

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