By Bethan Staton, News Reporter
Trapped by a months-long siege and under ferocious government bombing, the residents of rebel-held eastern Ghouta say they are “waiting their turn to die”.
At least 250 people have been killed in 48 hours in the Damascus suburb, while residents make panicked phone calls to the world outside, mortars whistling in the background as they recall whole families pulled from rubble in a city without food or medicine.
The news from the enclave is horrifying, but it is also familiar.
Government offensives like that now devastating Ghouta have happened before, in areas including Aleppo, Homs and Idlib.
Often these are aerial attacks preceded by months or even years of siege action that stops food, medicine and other resources entering areas where rebels are stationed.
It is a “surrender or starve” tactic combining sieges and bombardments by the government, says Amnesty International director Phillip Luther, “part of a systematic, as well as widespread, attack on civilians that amounts to crimes against humanity”.
Eastern Ghouta has been under partial siege since 2013.
A report by monitor Siegewatch in October 2017 documented escalating shelling in the second half of 2017, and when the government halted trade at a key checkpoint the the price of basic good like seeds, grain and sugar skyrocketed.
In autumn of 2017 the price of bread was 48 times its cost in a nearby Damascus suburb, 80% of Ghouta’s population was unemployed and several people had died after not receiving medical care or from malnutrition, the monitor said.
After besieging and shelling neighbourhoods, Amnesty International said in a report, the Syrian government has struck struck deals with a broken population, enabling them to “reclaim territory by first starving and then removing residents who rejected its rule”.
Among the more horrific of the sieges imposed by government forces was that of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, where 194 people died of malnutrition or because of a lack of medical care between July 2013 and the following February.
Later, crackdowns and oppression by rebels in the camp amounted to what observers termed a siege within a siege.
And in 2015 more horrifying levels of deprivation were enforced during the lock down of Madaya, a town of 40,000 people in the province of Idlib where starving residents were forced to boil grass and eat cats to survive.
At least 23 people – many of whom were children – died as a result of malnutrition or because they could not access healthcare, observers said.
In April 2017 Madaya was among the towns in Idlib province incorporated in a transfer of some 7,500 residents, who were moved to Aleppo.
That city was itself one of the worst affected by fighting. Held by militant groups, Aleppo was under siege from 2014 with regime forces cutting off supply routes and dropping barrel bombs on the population with the support of ally Russia.
UN chief envoy to Syria Stefan de Mistura warned the city could be completely destroyed by the “cruel, constant” aerial bombardment, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee and horrifying incidences of entire families being pulled from the rubble punctuated a rising death toll.
When the siege ended in December 2016, civilians were not ordered to evacuate but the vast majority that remained – some 37,000 of an original 275,000 – left, unable to trust government promises of protection after the horror of the siege.
Compared to other areas placed under siege by government troops, eastern Ghouta has held out for a remarkably long time.
But Mr de Mistura has warned that the enclave could become “a second Aleppo” – a city forced to surrender to government troops in the face of what could be many more months of bloodshed and starvation.