Regime forces launched scores of surface-to-surface missiles and mortar shells on February 17 into three rebel-held neighborhoods of eastern Damascus currently under a ceasefire deal with the regime. Two weeks later, the shelling of the besieged pocket—accompanied by airstrikes—has not stopped.
Qaboun and Tishreen lie only one kilometer from the opposition-controlled East Ghouta suburbs.
Regime checkpoints surround Qaboun, Tishreen and neighboring Barzeh, preventing food and supplies from entering, and residents from exiting the area.
Despite shortages of medicine and equipment, the Syrian Civil Defense continues its first response and rescue operations.
Last week, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, was killed by an airstrike on Barzeh during a search-and-rescue operation.
“We know the risks that working with the Civil Defense entails and we chose to walk this path,” Eyad Abu al-Joud, head of the Syrian Civil Defense in eastern Damascus, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.
Residents fleeing Tishreen on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Sitar a-Dimashqi.
According to al-Joud’s estimates, 85 percent of Tishreen and 60 percent of Qaboun have been demolished since mid-February.
“If the bombardment goes on,” he says, “the area will soon be completely destroyed.”
Q: Could you describe what Qaboun and Tishreen look like right now?
The extent of the damage is enormous. About 85 percent of Tishreen has been destroyed, plus around 60 percent of Qaboun. Residential areas have been demolished by surface-to-surface missiles.
The bombardment has not stopped. Most residents have fled to Barzeh [an adjacent rebel neighborhood]. However, regime checkpoints surrounding the neighborhoods keep residents from leaving the area. They are sleeping in Barzeh’s streets, fields and mosques.
In addition to food and medicine, we need medical professionals to attend people’s needs.
In Tishreen, all [Civil Defense] ambulances are out of commission and need major repairs before they can return to service. Qaboun and Tishreen have narrow roads, and the bombardment has led to road closures.
In Qaboun, our excavator was damaged after our team was shelled. One of the Civil Defense volunteers from our Barzeh team was killed during a rescue operation as he was searching through the rubble.
Q: How does this recent period of bombardment in Qaboun and Tishreen compare with previous shelling in the area?
The bombardment is violent and systematic. As I see it, unlike previous attempts to pave the way for an invasion, the bombardment is now aimed at closing off tunnels and strangling East Ghouta.
The damage in Qaboun and Tishreen is massive, and the bombardment is unrelenting. It’s hard to start repairing the damages. These neighborhoods aren’t recognizable.
Civil Defense volunteers search for survivors following airstrike on Tishreen. Photo by Msallam Abdalbaset/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: What sort of work is Syrian Civil Defense doing in Tishreen and Qaboun?
The Civil Defense has three centers in northeast Damascus—Barzeh, Qaboun and Tishreen. We’re carrying out rescue operations and transporting residents injured by the heavy shelling [to medical facilities]. We’re putting out fires in homes and vehicles caused by shelling throughout the neighborhoods. We’re also trying to open roads blocked by demolished buildings so that ambulances can pass.
Q: What obstacles are Civil Defense members facing in their work, considering that the bombardment has not stopped?
We face a lot of obstacles, but it all boils down to a lack of equipment due to the siege. Regime forces closed the roads for transporting goods and equipment into the area. We’re also short of medicine and first-aid equipment.
Dozens have died and hundreds have been injured. Civil Defense members are still searching for missing persons, trying to pull out bodies buried deep under the rubble.
Every day people go missing, trapped under the ruins. We can’t reach them with the continued shelling and the damage to infrastructure. At the moment, there are 11 people missing in Qaboun and Tishreen alone.
Q: Regime shelling of the two neighborhoods has continued for almost two weeks at this point. As a Civil Defense member, how are you able to continue your work, physically and mentally?
We, members of the Syrian Civil Defense, have a moral and humanitarian duty to the people of our country, despite the fact that we might die at any moment.
We might be injured in performing our duties. We know the risks that working with the Civil Defense entails and we chose to walk this path, despite the danger.
We must remain strong and patient in light of this fear and destruction that plague Syria and our neighborhoods, in order to help alleviate the suffering of our people.
Q: Are there situations that the Civil Defense cannot assist with?
There are cases in which the Civil Defense is powerless to help. Sometimes, we transport injured civilians who turn out to need surgery. Medical facilities can’t perform surgical operations because of shortages of medical equipment. In several cases, these injured civilians die.
Eastern Damascus is in a terrible state. If the bombardment goes on, the area will soon be completely destroyed.