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Monday, October 7, 2013

The Courage of Ghouta in a Craven World

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“The biggest disaster is the hunger. People in Ghouta have nothing to eat, they are dying of hunger. There are injured people without help. You come from a big country with power – tell me is this right?”
                      -- chemical massacre survivor asks UK reporter
3 kids welcome the UN inspectors. Signs say:
"East Ghouta is a land of martyrdom and bravery"
The bombardment of the rebellious communities of East and West Ghouta continues today just it did for months before the sarin gas attack of 21 August brought these neighbourhoods to the attention of the world. Now, in return for a promise to give up his chemical weapons, Assad is being welcomed in from the cold. Meanwhile, he has tightened his siege of those communities to the point were he has cut off all food and medical supplies, electricity and telephone, and a craven world looks the other way as he is being allowed to starve to death the children who survived his poison gas attack.

While Assad and his supporters continue to advance ludicrous theories about how he didn't do the chemical attack, his "regular" missiles keep slamming into the resistive community with ultimate effects not that different from sarin. Six weeks after banned chemical weapons were used to slaughter over a thousand people in Ghouta, Assad has been allowed to continue the slaughter by conventional means unabated, while the UN and the world "community" hide behind the protocol of "International Law." This video is from Saturday:

Assad Rockets Wound 6 Members of Same Family in Mleiha, East Ghouta | 5 Oct 2013

6 members of the same family were wounded after shelling by rocket launchers of regime forces in the Mleha suburb of Damascus; the footage shows the arrival of the wounded in a field hospital.
Writing for the Washington Post from Beirut, 20 Sept 2013, Loveday Morris and Taylor Luck introduced the situation this way:
A month after rockets carrying chemical payloads rained down on the suburbs of Damascus, doctors say hundreds are still suffering the ill effects of sarin poisoning. But the horror of the gas attack is being overtaken by continuing shelling and airstrikes, as well as by malnutrition and disease.
Missile bombardment of the residential neighborhoods in Medmah | 20 Sept 2013

"Locals say they have become accustomed to army shelling whenever they congregate, a practice they say is done on purpose in order to target the largest number of civilians."
Through Skype interviews with doctors and activists, the Washington Post reporters paint a vivid picture of the dire conditions in these Damascus suburbs where starvation is becoming an increasing problem. They are now also forced to contend with outbreaks of brucellosis, scarlet fever, hepatitis and other diseases being breed by the conditions:
But scores of survivors suffering from side effects continue to require medical attention for persistent symptoms that include respiratory problems, nausea, weakness and blurred vision, the doctors say. Meanwhile, they say, explosive shells continue to fall, leaving little way of evacuating the wounded and only limited medical equipment to treat them.

An estimated 300 survivors of the chemical attack are contending with side effects in the Eastern Ghouta towns of Ein Tarma and Zamalka, doctors said. An additional 150 are suffering from the effects in Moadamiya, a town to the west of Damascus that was also targeted Aug. 21, doctors said, and oxygen supplies there are low.

But even before last month’s attack, the worst chemical strike in decades, rebel-held areas of the Damascus suburbs had long been a target of government assaults. And now, the side effects from sarin are just one among a sea of concerns.

"This siege is what we call a slow death," said an activist who gave his name as Anas al-Dimashqi. For about 10 months, he said, government ­forces have maintained what amounts to a blockade by erecting checkpoints that prohibit food and supplies from entering the area.


Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher was able to visit Moadhamiya recently. David Greene interviewed him on NPR. He talked about this siege:
DAGHER: The government has tanks, has armored vehicles, has army units there basically besieging the section of the town which is controlled by rebels. And...

GREENE: That they're trapping people in this rebel-controlled area.

DAGHER: Precisely. They've set up earth berms. They've stacked up empty barrels and broken kitchen appliances in order to separate that section of the town that's controlled by the rebels. And there are snipers on rooftops. So it's a real war zone there and the people who are trapped - and these include rebel fighters and civilians - they're not allowed to leave.

Nobody is allowed to go in. They are subjected almost on a daily basis with artillery shelling, rockets that are being fired from nearby mountaintops, sometimes aerial bombardment. And sometimes you get clashes between the forces that are on the government side of the town and the rebels.
He also talked about the people's attempts to break the blockade and the Assad regime's countermeasures:
GREENE: Are people getting food and supplies from the outside at all?

DAGHER: Well, up to about two months ago, those who sympathized with the plight of the people who are trapped in Moadhamiya would drive past the town and toss grocery bags out of their car windows in their direction. And often people would come out and take the bag, but it would be at great risk because snipers might shoot them. The government realized what was going on so it completely shut down that section of the highway.
and he spoke of attempts by the UN to get food in:
the United Nations and the Syrian Red Crescent here which works with the United Nations have made repeated urgent appeals for access to this particular town. I spoke to an official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and he said that he has made seven attempts since the start of this year to deliver much needed food trucks to Moadhamiya.

And he's been turned away every time by the military checkpoints at the entrance.
The Guardian called the people "in effect, prisoners," saying "They are under siege, cut off from all outside help, gradually being starved and with no means of escape." It's report described a scene at one checkpoint:
On one recent occasion the NDF commander at the last checkpoint, who was refusing to let food into Moadamiyeh, told a SARC driver: “Unload your supplies here. Then call your friends and let them come and fetch it.” When the driver said people were afraid to come out in case they were killed, the checkpoint commander said: “Yes, if I recognise someone I don’t like, I might kill them.”

Children staving to death in Medmah | 25 Sept 2013


This policy of starving people into submission that have defied the regime's bombs and poison gas for so many months now is a deliberate one that is being allowed by the world. It certainly isn't being protested by Code Pink or anyone else on the Left. Dagher reported:
The people who are with the regime whom I actually interviewed when I was there, confirmed that these people were starving, and they said these people deserved it and they should starve until they surrender.
Apparently it is both US and UN policy also that Assad should be allowed to bomb and starve them until they surrender, he just shouldn't be allowed to use poison gas to secure their surrender.

The siege of Ghouta started months before the August chemical weapons attack. The Independent interviewed a family in Lebanon that escaped from Ghouta after the chemical attack. They described the horror their lives had become:
Kindeh, Tasnim’s uncle, began the awful tale: “We all lived in Ghouta until less than a month ago. I was working on a construction site in Damascus, passing through the government checkpoints every day. When I didn’t give the guard money for Malboro cigarettes he hit me with his gun.”

“No bread or flour or rice was allowed to enter Ghouta for three months. Only women were allowed into Damascus to buy any food at all, but when I brought bread the guard threw it on the ground, stamped on it and told me ‘now you can take it’. If I complained he would beat me too,” continued Rawda.

“The guards started using bags of bread instead of sandbags around their checkpoint, just to humiliate us. They said that one bag of bread cost one bullet. So we were afraid like this for three months before the massacre. We lived by picking whatever fruit or vegetables we could find in Ghouta.”

“It had become normal for planes to throw bombs and fire on our homes. Even in Ramadan bombs were falling every two or three hours. My husband died but I cannot even say to the officials that he was killed by a bomb or I could be hit or put in prison, so I told them it was a car accident."
The chemical attack first announced itself because the bombs sounded different:
“That night there were planes dropping bombs as usual. At 1am we heard bombs but the sound was strange."
That different sound was also noticed by another worker
who was on duty at the hospital that night, said he heard an unusual-sounding rocket shortly before 2 a.m. It seemed to land without the blast of mortar or tank shells.
The refugees now in Lebanon were able to survive because they knew what to do:
My brother was a first aider, he and his son were helping in Zamalka neighbourhood where many people died. They knew it was chemical weapons, so they took some clothes, poured coca cola on them and put charcoal between the layers. The Free Syrian Army had given us instructions on what to do if there was a chemical attack.
After the UN inspector came and went, things got even worst and the family left. The reporter writes:
“How many people do you think died?” [Rawa] asks me. I shake my head as she says: “I can tell you it is many more than you and the world know. The international inspectors were allowed free entry to some areas and they were able to do a good investigation. In other neighbourhoods the regime prevented the inspection, they didn’t really know everything that happened. When they left it was worse. The Syrian regime threw more bombs and fires than ever before, it was terrible, worse than a horror movie. One week later we left and escaped to Lebanon”.

She collapses into tears as she trails off, “My two older sons are still there.”
Who can doubt that they stayed to carry on the fight? Because that is the main thing about Ghouta. It has a spirit that won't be broken. Months of bombardment and siege didn't break it. That's why Assad became so desperate that he turned to his stockpile of banned chemical weapons, and they didn't break Ghouta either. And now that he has returned to the use of conventional bombs and intensified the use of them, with the world's blessing, and is denying them any food at all, he is finding that he still can't break them!

From Reuters on Friday we get this description of Ghouta after the chemical attack:
Already it is hard to tell exactly where the chemical rockets fell in the rebel-held Ghouta, a mix of suburban sprawl and farmland, because damage from conventional bombardment has reduced the area to a grey monochrome of rubble and wreckage.

Street after street is littered with smashed concrete and bent metal. One building, destroyed before the chemical attack, is sliced in half from top to bottom. On one floor, a kitchen can be seen complete with cabinets and washing machine. On another, the headboard of a double bed and a bedroom commode.

At the site where residents say a sarin-loaded rocket fell, only mounds of rubble stand amid scorched earth, remnants of houses and patches of garden ringed by narrow streets that were so packed with bodies on the night of the attack that they said it was impossible not to step or drive over the dead.
After the sarin gas attack, Assad and his supporters even had the audacity to claim that the rebels had carried out the attack and that Ghouta had long ago been taken back from the rebels and was in the hands the regime at the time of the attack! This is what RT claimed on the very day of the chemical attack:
Finally, the region reported to be the site of the poison gas attack by Assad forces, Eastern Ghouta, was re-secured from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist terrorists, by Government troops in May as part of a major series of rollback victories against the insurgent forces and is not currently a scene of any major resistance to Assad forces.
It is just such false reports of imaginary Assad victories that his much heralded "military gains" are made of. Clearly his claim to have conquered Ghouta in May was premature, but having already made such a claim, we can see where the desperation to make it real could have lead to the use of chemical weapons.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist terrorists killed by Government Forces in Ghouta

Reuters also gives us this portrait of the life of sixteen-year-old Mohammad al Zeibaa. who lost his entire family in the sarin gas attack:
Like most people in Ghouta, Mohammad vows to remain steadfast until Assad's overthrow - a still distant goal after military gains by the president's forces.

He has become an integral part of a community struggling to administer itself despite clashes with government forces and a 13-month government siege that leaves everyone hungry and is starting to starve the youngest and most vulnerable.

Every day, Mohammad shows up to work at the field hospital near his home. Thin and child-like for his age, he is too small to bear arms but he resembles the men with his stoic appearance, broken occasionally by a quick smile.

Like everyone else he eats many meals without bread, a staple now in short supply, and finishes perishable food quickly because it cannot be refrigerated. The rebel area has been off the electricity grid for a year.

At night he spends his time in the dim half light of rechargeable torches and the droning of electricity generators, along with their noxious fumes. To get around, Mohammad uses a bicycle due to fuel shortages and lack of public transport.

At home his landline telephone stopped working long ago and he has no use for a cell phone because it is hard to get a signal. If he needs to communicate, he uses a walkie-talkie to contact a dispatcher and ask him to relay messages.

Most of the rebel fighters are further west, on the front line near the Damascus ring-road which separates the rebellious eastern suburbs from the center of the capital.

But during a short drive through the area, rebels could be seen two or three to a motor bike, their guns slung over their shoulders. Others walk around, congregating around rebel checkpoints. Almost every family has a gun, sometimes laid openly on a table or hanging by the door.

Such is life in the rebel territory linked to central Damascus only via two government checkpoints. There, soldiers confiscate food, baby milk and medicine and at times refuse entry even to people who have queued for hours.

Residents, especially the men, cannot leave their district and venture into government controlled Damascus without risking indefinite detention when they try to pass the checkpoint.

For food they rely on locally raised poultry and meat, as well as olives, citrus, eggplant and green peppers. But in May, government bombardment set ablaze this year's wheat crop.

The handful of doctors complain that dysentery and a lack of antibiotics endanger lives. They say the siege is starting to cause malnutrition among pregnant mothers and children, and that some babies have already died of starvation.
Classroom in besieged East Ghouta. They try to provide for the kids | 28 Sept 2013

The Reuters article continues, describing how they try to organize life the liberated areas:
The one thing that East Ghouta has in abundance is men willing to fight.

But supported by financing from underground charities and fund-raising by families abroad, it has also set up a network of pro-rebel organizations tackling the community's medical needs, communications, humanitarian relief, education and sanitation, and ensuring something that approximates to the rule of law.

With most schools either bombed out or unsafe, residents have organized "revolutionary education" centers for small children.

Teenagers, however, go to work.

The most popular choice for boys and girls as young as 14 is medical work, where volunteers are needed and parents feel their children are as safe as they can be in a war zone.

Teenage nursing assistants receive on-the-job training in field hospitals and quickly find themselves dispensing medicine and helping to treat battlefield casualties.
Because Bashar al-Assad has allowed a few obsolete and empty chemical weapons shells to be destroyed, US Secretary of State John Kerry may be willing to sing his praises, but in Ghouta they don't see that anything has been done to stop Assad from killing, so they are preparing for another chemical attack:
Syria has recently agreed to a plan by Russia and the United States that calls for the country to surrender its chemical weapons, but the doctors and activists said residents wait in fear of another attack.

In Eastern Ghouta, the doctors said they were trying to stock 14 emergency chemical-weapons treatment centers so that residents can be prepared if the horror of Aug. 21 is repeated.

“We do not trust this regime,” Dimashqi said.

Will these girls in Zamalka be murdered yet?
The people of Ghouta show us what the "Death of Fear" is all about. They show the type of courage the world badly needs to move forward. They have been bombed. They have been gases. They have been starved. They have suffered all this and more while a mean and cowardly world excuses their tormentor. And still they will not surrender! Still Ghouta remains the land of the free and the home of the brave, a title which the United States has forfeited.

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2 comments:

  1. Excellent piece, Clay, The situation in Eastern Ghouta is paralleled by that in Homs Old Town, where the Asad regime is employing the same tactics:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/middle-east/2013/09/doctors-letter-besieged-syrian-city-homs

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    1. Thanks, also although the regime is being brutal in their tactics and seemingly successful in their PR blitz, they seem to be steadily losing ground militarily.

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