Dozens of medical patients leave besieged East Ghouta in Russian-backed evacuation deal

AMMAN: Dozens of civilians left the rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus on Tuesday in the first medical evacuations from the besieged pocket since pro-government forces escalated a military assault there last month.

Some 55 civilians, including 36 medical patients, departed the East Ghouta suburbs for hospitals in the Syrian capital on Tuesday morning, Yasser Delwan, a political official with the rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, told Syria Direct from the enclave. Jaish al-Islam is one of two major opposition factions in control of East Ghouta.   

The medical patients were the first to be evacuated from East Ghouta since pro-government forces encircling the pocket intensified attacks on the suburbs in mid-February. The ongoing offensive has left at least 1,000 civilians dead and nearly 5,000 wounded so far, medical organization Doctors without Borders (MSF) reported last week.

Most of Tuesday’s evacuees, who left with family members, have chronic illnesses such as cancer and hepatitis, Delwan said, and were not “injured.” Medical care for chronic conditions such as cancer is largely unavailable in East Ghouta, where a devastated health care system faces acute supply shortages.

Red Crescent personnel assist civilians leaving East Ghouta on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Red Crescent.   

Jaish al-Islam, Russia and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) reached an agreement on medical evacuations on Monday, Delwan said, with the United Nations (UN) acting as a guarantor. Jaish al-Islam announced the deal in an official statement.

Russian state media outlet TASS reported that two groups of civilians—totaling about 100 people—departed Douma on Tuesday, and that the evacuees included “wounded persons.”

Syria Direct could not independently verify the total number of civilians who left East Ghouta on Tuesday.

Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), confirmed to Syria Direct that evacuations from East Ghouta were scheduled to take place on Tuesday but did not provide further comment.

More than 1,000 people in East Ghouta are “in urgent need of medical evacuation,” the UN said on Monday.

A video posted to Twitter by SARC on Tuesday shows the organization’s vehicles at the al-Wafideen crossing northwest of Douma city. SARC personnel were “providing services to families getting out of Eastern Ghouta,” the organization wrote.

Civilians prepare to depart Douma city on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Osama al-Amari.

Russia declared the al-Wafideen crossing a “humanitarian corridor” for civilians leaving the rebel enclave last month, Syria Direct reported.

However, relatively few civilians left the rebel enclave via the crossing after it was established. The Syrian government and Russia accuse rebel factions in East Ghouta of shelling the crossing, preventing civilians from leaving. Rebels deny targeting civilians, and say that government bombings and the fear of reprisals prevent residents from leaving.

Syrian state media outlet SANA reported that units of the Syrian Arab Army “secured the exit” of a number of civilians from East Ghouta on Tuesday.

“Scores of civilians, mostly women, children and elderly including patients” exited via the al-Wafideen crossing, SANA reported. The outlet did not mention that any other parties were involved in the evacuation.

The last evacuation of medical patients from East Ghouta took place late last year, when SARC and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) transferred 29 emergency cases to hospitals in Damascus.

With additional reporting by Amani al-Khaldi.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Avery Edelman

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