Middle East

War crimes in Ghouta exacerbate siege: Amnesty

Ruins of residential buildings near the al-Ansar mosque in al-Masaken neighbourhood that were destroyed by government air strikes in February 2015.

BEIRUT: More than 163,000 civilians living under siege in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta are enduring a growing catastrophic humanitarian crisis, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

The siege, which started three years ago, is accentuated by frequent aerial assaults and shelling by Syrian government forces and abuses by non-state armed groups, the report says. Civilians are suffering from severe shortages of food, medical supplies, electricity and much-needed basic necessities due to restrictions imposed by both sides.

The Amnesty report, entitled “Left to die under siege: War crimes and human rights abuses in Eastern Ghouta, Syria,” is based on research carried out from April to June 2015.

Amnesty said its report’s findings show critical evidence of crimes against humanity by government forces. According to a local monitoring group, Violations Documentation Center in Syria, at least 462 civilians and only 16 fighters were killed in government attacks between January and June 2015.

For that same period, Amnesty documented 13 airstrikes and other attacks that killed 231 civilians and only three fighters, in an indication of the indiscriminate nature of regime attacks.

“In 10 cases no military target could be identified in the vicinity, suggesting the strikes were direct attacks on civilians or at best indiscriminate. In the remaining three cases the attacks appeared grossly disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate,” the report stated.

The report says that the Syrian government employed fighter jets to “drop unguided bombs and locally produced explosives on civilians and civilian objects, weapons that are too imprecise to target military objectives that may be present in heavily populated civilian areas.”

An analysis of satellite images showed that aerial bombardments conducted in the period between Dec. 28, 2014, and Feb. 10, 2015, have leveled several residential buildings in Douma.

On the morning of Feb. 6, according to the report, government jets launched four airstrikes in Al-Masaken neighborhood, hitting two shelters for displaced families, one of which was Al-Ansar Mosque. The airstrikes also hit residential buildings in the Khorshid neighborhood.

“I was at home when the attack happened. I heard and saw the government fighter jet,” Zakariya, a student, told Amnesty. “The fighter jets carried out two strikes on Khorshid neighborhood, the same site attacked the day before. ... When I arrived, I saw that around 70 percent of the buildings in the neighborhood were no longer suitable for living. ... I saw the medics removing children from under the rubble. They were still alive but badly injured. ... How many times can you actually survive?”

In another deadly attack on Feb. 9, government air forces hit a market in Hamouria as people were coming out of a mosque nearby after Friday prayers.

“The timing and location of these attacks appear deliberately orchestrated to maximize damage or civilian casualties in a gruesome attempt by the Syrian government forces to terrorize the population. All attacks on civilians and civilian buildings or infrastructure must end,” said Said Boumedouha, acting director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.

Boumedouha added that the repeated indiscriminate and random attacks by the Syrian government forces on civilian areas constitute war crimes.

“By repeatedly bombing heavily populated areas in a series of direct, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks as well as by unlawfully besieging civilians, Syrian government forces have committed war crimes and displayed a sinister callousness toward Eastern Ghouta’s civilians,” he said.

The report says non-state groups, such as Jaish al-Islam, have also carried out war crimes in Eastern Ghouta. “These groups have indiscriminately shelled civilians living in neighboring and nearby government-held territory and committed other war crimes.”

In its report, Amnesty International also showed the extent of the suffering caused by the restrictions on civilian movement, food, medical care and vital basic necessities.

“Living conditions for civilians who remain in besieged parts of Eastern Ghouta have continued to deteriorate as Syrian government forces have maintained and progressively tightened their siege of parts of the area.”

According to the report, the checkpoints installed by both government forces and armed groups continuously obstruct civilian movement in and out of Eastern Ghouta.

Additionally, U.N. agencies and other humanitarian groups continue to be denied access into the area by government forces.

The Amnesty report also holds non-state armed groups responsible for aggravating the dire living conditions for the civilians.

“The evidence indicates that non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta, and in particular the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), are responsible for inflating the price of food and other basic necessities there, arbitrarily restricting the movement of civilians wishing to leave, and abducting and arbitrarily detaining people.”

“According to the Syrian American Medical Society, 208 civilians died from the lack of food or access to medical care in Eastern Ghouta from Oct. 21, 2012, to Jan. 31, 2015,” the report added.

In 2014, the U.N. Security Council adopted two resolutions aimed at offering relief to the civilians in Eastern Ghouta, but they have thus far not been effective.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 12, 2015, on page 8.

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