The fertile eastern suburbs of Damascus once fed the capital city with its hundreds of thousands of cattle, sheep and chickens.
But since the start of the war, government forces have bombarded, besieged and starved the traditionally agrarian East Ghouta region, which is under rebel control, leaving the area’s livestock unvaccinated against deadly disease for more than five years.
Across Syria, livestock ownership has dropped by 50 percent throughout the war—in large part due to disease, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
With every animal lost to disease, “a family loses their livelihood,” Mohammad Fouad Sabhiah, the head of East Ghouta’s veterinarian union, tells Syria Direct reporter Shefaa Yasin. He estimates some 35 percent of East Ghouta families rely on livestock and animal husbandry for a living.
The Austria-based International Humanitarian Relief organization (IHR) provided Sabhiah and a group of other veterinarians inside East Ghouta with the funds to launch a mobile vaccination clinic last November. Their goal: to halt the “epidemic.” Equipped with medicines that are otherwise far too expensive for individual shepherds and cattle herders, their van moves from suburb to suburb, vaccinating farm animals against pox and other deadly infections.
Though he’s seen a marked improvement over the past five months, the clinic has already exhausted 90 percent of its vaccinations—and Sabhiah knows the rest “will not last long.” Government encirclement of East Ghouta means official crossings both into and out of the rebel-controlled pocket are shut tight. A new batch of vaccines could be near impossible to source, says Sabhiah, once the mobile clinic runs out.
Q: Traditionally, East Ghouta is known as a fertile region ideal for raising livestock. However, since the war started, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in the number of cows, sheep and other farm animals in the region. What is the reason for this?
At the end of 2010, East Ghouta had 120,000 milk cows. Today, there are just 6,000. We saw 200,000 head of sheep that same year, compared to today’s 40,000. There are also only 10,000 chickens now, a drop from 75,000 in 2010.
This is due to the spread of a number of diseases in East Ghouta—most of them epidemic—without immunizations for domesticated animals. [Those diseases] include foot-and-mouth disease, which indicates an intense viral infection, and affects animals with hooves. The animal suffers from pustules in its mouth, which lead to lameness, drooling and loss of appetite. Then it loses weight very quickly and loses its milk-making ability, then dies.
Pox is also widespread among sheep, and if it is malignant it leads to death in 75 percent of all cases.
Q: What steps are you taking right now to immunize livestock? Have you requested help from any outside organizations?
Yes, we are constantly requesting vaccines. We’ve communicated with a number of organizations that specialize in this field, but we haven’t started any actual immunization campaign until recently.
There were some organizations that responded to our calls for help, but [the help they provided] wasn’t enough and couldn’t cover enough of the vaccines we needed. So we’ve carried out only two vaccination campaigns to date—one against pox, and the other against enterotoxaemia [an infection common in sheep and goats that can lead to sudden death if untreated].
These campaigns were free of charge and cover most types of livestock. The livestock owners don’t have to bear any of the burden of paying for immunization.
A shepherd in East Ghouta in May 2016. Photo courtesy of AMER ALMOHIBANY/AFP/Getty Images.
Q: With so much disease spreading among livestock in the region, are any of these diseases having any direct impact on people living in East Ghouta?
Yes, there are diseases that have a direct impact on people. For example, brucella [a bacteria] is common in cattle, and can cause Malta fever [a bacterial disease] in people who consume [infected] meat and milk. The last time livestock were vaccinated for this disease was more than five years ago.
There’s also a huge impact on East Ghouta residents from an economic standpoint. Animal husbandry and livestock is a primary source of income for 35 percent of families in East Ghouta. If any animal is lost, a family loses their income. And most families don’t even own more than two head of cattle.
Q: Since launching your mobile veterinary clinic in November, how have you obtained the necessary supplies and vaccines?
At first, we brought in supplies via the tunnels, then from smugglers.
[Ed.: A network of underground tunnels runs between East Ghouta and three nearby rebel-held neighborhoods of Tishreen, Qaboun and Barzeh. But in recent weeks, a tightened government siege on the three neighborhoods has restricted the tunnel trade, Syria Direct reported last month.
And though most goods reach East Ghouta via semi-recognized trading points regulated by the Syrian government, the tunnels were—until recently—one of the few ways for rebels to bring much-needed supplies into East Ghouta without regime approval.]
Despite the fact that these medicines are expensive, we provide them for free. Livestock owners can’t treat their own animals due to the preventatively high price of medicines and consultations.
But the medicine that we have now will not last long. Afterwards, we are waiting to renew the project and that depends on the resources available and the existence of funding.
Q: Now that it’s April, have you run out of supplies? Do you have enough funding and resources to continue the immunization project? What is your plan for the future?
We’ve used up about 90 percent of the medicine, and there is now a major shortage, even in specialized pharmacies.
Now, we’re just waiting for the crossings to open again so that we can bring in more medicine.