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Wadi Barada ‘a disaster area’ as civilians driven underground, battle for water spring escalates

AMMAN: Pro-regime forces are targeting journalists, medical workers, Civil Defense […]

25 January 2017

AMMAN: Pro-regime forces are targeting journalists, medical workers, Civil Defense first responders and civilian infrastructure inside Wadi Barada amidst a month-long military campaign that has left the rebel-controlled pocket a “disaster area,” local opposition sources told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

While rebels have not ceded territory in nearly a week, regime forces and allied Hezbollah fighters “are targeting anyone and everyone, regardless of age,” as near-constant mortar fire pummeled Wadi Barada on Wednesday and thousands of civilians scrambled to find shelter underground.

“There are 50-60 people huddled together in a single basement,” Samer Rihan, director of the Ein al-Fijeh Medical Center, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “If you want to know what the ugly side of war looks like, this is it, and we’re living it.”

The regime’s campaign centers on regaining control over the Ein al-Fijeh water pumping station, which supplied Damascus with 70 percent of its water before its destruction last month. Pro-Assad forces have captured three rebel villages since the start of the month-long campaign, and now control six out of Wadi Barada’s 13 villages.

Despite controlling the high ground surrounding Wadi Barada, pro-regime forces have been unable to make significant inroads into the village of Ein al-Fijeh. Despite clear disadvantages in firepower, hundreds of rebel fighters have managed to limit the regime’s advances by capitalizing on Wadi Barada’s mountainous topography and confronting the regime at up to four critical chokepoints around the town.

The regime’s response mirrors similar siege tactics used in Aleppo: bleed opposition forces of both men and ammunition while pounding civilian infrastructure and maintaining an airtight encirclement to ensure that neither food nor medicine enters the area.

Inside the village of Ein al-Fijeh, the one under-staffed and under-equipped medical center performs triage, while facing near constant bombardment.

“We have to resort to amputations so frequently because given our medical training, that’s often all that we can do to keep someone from dying,” Rihan, the medical center’s director, told Syria Direct. “We’re not trained for this…and we’ve lost friends because there’s nothing we can do other than stanch the bleeding and give them more blood.”

The four-bed mobile medical center has moved three times since the start of the regime’s campaign, relocating each time after a wave of bombardment either threatens or damages the center.

“There are so many cases that require emergency medical treatment,” Rihan added. “But the regime hasn’t let a single one of these cases out of Wadi Barada during this campaign despite our protests, and it’s clear they don’t care about us.”

Since fighting first began on December 22, at least “200 people have been killed,” with 60 percent of them women and children, a group of Wadi Barada civil society organizations announced in a “distress call” posted on Facebook on Tuesday. The post further claims that 400 people have been injured, 45,000 people have lost their homes, the Civil Defense is no longer operating and more than 20 people have died from an inability to get medicine needed to treat chronic conditions as a result of the blockade.

The regime’s ground and air offensive—which relies heavily on airstrikes, barrel bombs, tank shells, mortar fire and snipers—is “unprecedented” for Wadi Barada, which has seen an uneasy peace since rebels seized control in 2012, Omar a-Shamali, a spokesman with the Wadi Barada Media Center, told Syria Direct on Wednedsay.

“This is like Madaya; this is like Zabadani,” he added. “More than 80,000 civilians inside Wadi Barada face the constant threat of death either from barrel bombs, snipers or from starvation.”

As a result of the regime’s encirclement of Wadi Barada, food, medicine and other basic supplies have not entered the seven rebel-held towns in over a month. Since the destruction of the water pumping station in December, residents inside the pocket remain largely without access to clean drinking water, electricity and communication with the outside world.

“People here are tired. They’re sick, they have nothing to eat and they want a political solution that brings about a ceasefire and the end of the blockade,” Muath al-Qalamouni, a journalist with STEP News Agency inside Wadi Barada, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “This war has consumed [Wadi Barada’s] civilians…and they feel powerless.”

Syria Direct spoke with the handful of reporters and medical professionals inside Wadi Barada who have access to a non-governmental satellite Internet channel typically reserved for rebel groups and opposition media. One of Syria Direct’s top contacts inside the opposition-controlled pocket—Abu Mohammad al-Baradawi, the spokesman for the Wadi Barada Media Center—was shot by sniperfire on Tuesday, but is reported to be in stable condition.

Despite previous negotiations, all talks of a ceasefire with the regime are currently suspended, sources inside Wadi Barada told Syria Direct.

A ceasefire collapsed last Thursday after airstrikes pounded Wadi Barada within hours after regime and opposition representatives signing on to the deal, Syria Direct reported. Prior to the ceasefire’s collapse, the agreement provided measures to repair the Ein al-Fijeh water-pumping station, damaged in the battle, and outlined steps for the amnesty or evacuation of Wadi Barada’s opposition fighters.

A prior deal fell apart earlier this month—also hours after it was reached—when the lead mediator, Ahmed al-Ghadban, was assassinated, Syria Direct reported.

Wednesday’s clashes come more than two weeks after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying that the region of Wadi Barada is exempt from a nation-wide ceasefire signed in Ankara on December 30.

 Fighting in Ein al-Fijeh Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Muath al-Qalamouni.

“The terrorists occupy the main source of water of Damascus…and the role of the Syrian army is to liberate that area in order to prevent those terrorists from using that water in order to suffocate the capital,” Assad told members of the French media, assembled in Damascus.

As a result of the month-long fighting in Wadi Barada, up to 5.5 million residents across Syria’s capital and adjacent suburbs are grappling with wide-scale water shortages.

Pro-regime sources say water stopped pumping to the capital on December 22 after rebels contaminated the area’s Ein al-Fijeh spring with diesel. Rebels deny the accusation, blaming government bombings for destroying Wadi Barada’s water-pumping station.

Among Syrians, Wadi Barada was best known as the home of Ein al-Fijeh, which provides drinking water to many of the capital’s neighborhoods, including Mezzeh and Malki, the wealthiest districts that count top regime officials and supporters among their population.

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