Fighting in Afrin and Eastern Ghouta sparks humanitarian disaster

Humanitarian agencies are struggling to cope with the thousands of families fleeing the fighting in Syria.
Thursday 22/03/2018
A man gestures as he stands on a damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, on March 21. (Reuters)
Nothing but ashes: A man gestures as he stands on a damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, on March 21. (Reuters)

TUNIS - With Turkish forces consolidating their grip on the Kurdish city of Afrin and the Syrian regime’s relentless advance into the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, humanitarian agencies are struggling to cope with the thousands of families fleeing the fighting.

In Eastern Ghouta, more than 45,000 people are said to have fled their homes. In Afrin, in excess of 104,000 people are reported by the United Nations to have been displaced by the latest round of violence. Little provision exists in either area for humanitarian relief and safeguarding the vulnerable.

Many of those who fled the violence in Eastern Ghouta are sheltering in the countryside around Damascus. However, relief facilities are oversubscribed and under-provisioned.

“UNHCR and its partners have been working around the clock to provide life-saving assistance,” Andrej Mahecic, UNHCR spokesman said in Geneva, Switzerland. He noted that 180,000 core relief items, such as mattresses, high thermal blankets and plastic sheets, had been delivered.

As the refugees gathered at relief points outside Eastern Ghouta, Ali Touma, 75, his leg bound between two metal plates, told relief agencies: “Even with my broken leg, we made our way out.” Describing the desperate journey he had undertaken with his wife and grandchildren, he told UN workers: “I used my crutches to walk out.”

Many of those fleeing war-wracked Eastern Ghouta had been trapped under government siege for five years and, the United Nations said, are emerging physically or emotionally broken by the experience. Still covered in the dust from the destruction of his neighbourhood, Ali told the United Nations how his wife collapsed on arrival and was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke.

In Afrin, previously considered a safe refuge from the horrors of the Syrian war, the numbers of the displaced are staggering. After Afrin city was surrendered to the Turkish Army and its allies on March 18, the city’s residents have been fleeing for the relative safety of Aleppo, 60km away. A day earlier, the Kurdish-aligned ANF News agency reported thousands of refugees were in the surrounding desert without “food, water or shelter.”

On entering Afrin’s centre, Turkish bulldozers demolished the statue of a Kurdish hero in the centre of Afrin and local businesses were draped with Turkish flags.

Turkish officials have denied Kurdish accusations of ethnic cleansing within Afrin. The Syrian Defence Forces’ head of foreign relations, Redur Xelil, wrote to Reuters on March 11, saying: “The Turkish government is settling Turkmen and Arab families in the villages of Afrin that it occupied after forcing out its people and is distributing the belongings of the people of Afrin to the new settlers.”

Official denials notwithstanding, earlier in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told provincial leaders: “We are not in a position to continue hosting 3.5 million refugees forever.” He later said: “We’ll solve the Afrin incident. We’ll solve Idlib and we would like our refugee brothers and sisters to return to their own country.”

Ankara has previously suggested that 350,000-500,000 refugees could be sent to Afrin.