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Why You Should Care About Eastern Ghouta And What You Can Do To Help

There are many organizations that need donations to continue their work in Syria.

Syrian children evacuated from Eastern Ghouta reach out from a bus window after arriving in the village of Qalaat al-Madiq. Photo by Zein Al Rifai/AFP/Getty Images.

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Bringing attention to the humanitarian crisis in Ghouta can help the public advocate for action.

The scenes of destruction playing out in the Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta — recently described by a top United Nations official as “ hell on Earth” — have drawn concern and outrage around the world, but for those not following the increasingly complicated Syrian conflict closely, the situation may be confusing.

The area known as Eastern Ghouta, with an estimated population of around 400,000 before large numbers of people recently began evacuating the area, is a collection of suburbs east of the capital city of Damascus. Before the Syrian civil war, the area was known for agriculture, supplying fruit and vegetables to the region.

The enclave’s location directly next to the capital makes it strategically important. After the outbreak of war in 2011, the area became a center of opposition to the Syrian regime and for rebel groups fighting the government forces.

The enclave has been under siege since 2013 and since late last year has been the target of an intensifying military offensive by the Syrian government and its Russian ally to retake the territory. More than 1,000 civilians have reportedly been killed in the offensive and tens of thousands displaced.

Ghouta has been controlled by a patchwork of rebel groups, which have sometimes fought with each other as well as launching mortar attacks on Damascus from the enclave. One such recent attack on a public market killed 44 civilians, according to Syrian state media.

Syrians walk in the streets as they wait to be evacuated from Arbin in Eastern Ghouta on March 27, 2018. Photo by Mohammed Eyad/AFP/Getty Images.

The area was officially one of the “de-escalation zones” agreed upon by Russia and Iran — on behalf of the Syrian regime — and Turkey, on behalf of the rebels, last year. However, the ceasefire agreement did not include all the rebel groups in Ghouta, and it did not halt the fighting. In fact, the conflict intensified after the agreement was put in place.

According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, almost 1,600 civilians have been killed in the government offensive in Ghouta since Feb. 18. The shelling has also targeted medical facilities, and amid shortages of health care, hundreds of patients have been trapped inside the enclave waiting for medical evacuation.

Apart from the death toll from airstrikes, the population of Ghouta has been suffering from a crisis of hunger. In the earlier days of the siege, some food and aid shipments were able to get in one official crossing point and a network of tunnels. However, these routes were closed or destroyed in 2017, leading to worsening shortages, skyrocketing prices for basic goods, and an increasing crisis of malnutrition, according to the United Nation’s World Food Programme.

Until recently, it was largely impossible for civilians to exit the enclave, even after the establishment of “evacuation routes.” Russian and Syrian government officials on one side and rebel groups on the other blamed each other for preventing civilians from leaving. Now, however, under surrender deals between the government and rebel groups, civilians are beginning to evacuate the enclave en masse, many of them heading to rebel-controlled Idlib, which has also been heavily targeted by airstrikes in recent months.

On Feb. 24, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire, but no such ceasefire was implemented. Russia, which had objected to the Security Council move, instead announced that it would establish its own “humanitarian corridor” to allow civilians to leave, along with a daily five-hour ceasefire. However, the daily ceasefire also did not take effect.

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive and re-took significant swathes of territory, prompting the first mass exodus of people leaving the enclave. According to the U.N., more than 80,000 people have fled Eastern Ghouta since March 9, with more than 50,000 of them now living in temporary shelters in rural Damascus. Another 13,000 or so – including rebel fighters, their families, and others unwilling to live in government-controlled territory – were evacuated to Idlib and others to Hama province.

Among those who reportedly fled is Muhammad Najem, a 15-year-old whose selfie videos of the destruction in Ghouta had captured international attention. In his most recent video clip posted March 25, Najem said he was heading to a displacement camp “and we don’t know what will happen there.”

An unknown number of people remain trapped inside, particularly in the besieged enclave of Duma.

Some limited supplies of aid have been able to enter the area in recent weeks, but the shipments have reached only a fraction of the people in need. Aid groups working in the area have faced severe difficulties, including restrictions on their access as well as security concerns, but there are some providing medical and limited food aid inside the enclave, and others are working with displaced civilians who have evacuated from Ghouta.

But the situation is Eastern Ghouta isn’t hopeless. Here are a few organizations that are accepting donations to help those in need in Syria.

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

The U.N. agency coordinating the humanitarian response in Syria, including aid to displaced people, says the U.N. and its partners need $115 million to provide assistance and services to those displaced from Ghouta to rural Damascus as well as those still trapped inside the enclave. The agency said it currently has a $74 million gap in funding for the efforts. Donate to the humanitarian fund in Syria here.

Doctors Without Borders

The international medical organization, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, has been supporting 20 hospitals and clinics inside Eastern Ghouta and others throughout Syria with emergency medical donations but does not have its own staff on the ground. Many of the supported medical facilities have been hit by bombing and shelling. Donate via the MSF website.

Syrian American Medical Society

The Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS — a U.S.-based nonprofit providing medical relief services throughout Syria — also supports medical facilities in Eastern Ghouta. It has also been deploying mobile clinics and ambulances to treat those evacuated from the enclave. The organization is raising funds for its work in Eastern Ghouta via its website.

International Committee of the Red Cross

In spite of obstacles — including being refused access by the Syrian government and encountering fighting inside the enclave — ICRC entered Ghouta this month with some limited food supplies and has also previously entered the area with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to evacuate patients in need of emergency medical care. Donate here.

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