Largest single-day exodus of the Syrian war as civilians flee Eastern Ghouta

There is no internationally recognised safe area for Ghouta’s refugees.
Friday 16/03/2018
Syrians from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region walk through a regime-controlled corridor in Hamouria in Eastern Ghouta after leaving the besieged enclave on March 16. (AFP)
Uncertain future. Syrians from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region walk through a regime-controlled corridor in Hamouria in Eastern Ghouta after leaving the besieged enclave on March 16. (AFP)

TUNIS - The rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, 15km from Damascus, appears to be succumbing to the month-long onslaught of the Syrian government and its allies.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that “tens of thousands” of civilians fled Hamouria and other opposition towns on March 15, marking the greatest single-day exodus of the Syrian civil war. More departures are expected in the following days.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking during Moscow-sponsored Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan, said both the Russian and Syrian governments were prepared to extend the ceasefire until all civilians had left the area.

There is no internationally recognised safe area for Ghouta’s refugees. Those fleeing the bombardment must trust in a regime that has carried out an offensive that is estimated to have killed more than 1,500 civilians.

Concern was expressed by those fleeing the conflict. A local journalist speaking to the Guardian newspaper on condition of anonymity said: “Today, there are civilian movements that are demanding at the very least for the United Nations to guarantee the evacuation of these families.

“The thousands who left the central part of Eastern Ghouta are doing so without any guarantees, to regime areas, and no UN organisation can oversee them. They are in areas controlled by the regime.”

Al Mayadeen TV showed buses waiting to pick up civilians. The Saudi-owned Al Ekhbariya channel reported that refugees were to be taken to a centre for identification and relief.

Mahmoud Bwedany, a student, expressed concern over the fate of Ghouta’s fleeing populace, telling the Guardian: “What will happen… other than the violation of human rights and forced displacement is they will take the military-age youth to the army and they’ll arrest whoever is on their wanted list. The scene makes you weep. We need someone to stand up to the regime and Russia.”

Aid agencies have scrambled to respond to the latest humanitarian crises in Syria’s intractable conflict. Speaking in Geneva, UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado confirmed the agency had response plans in place for up to 50,000 people leaving Ghouta, whose population is thought to be about 400,000.

Though technically covered by both the Russia-sponsored de-escalation agreements of 2017 and the UN ceasefire of February 24, the presence of approximately 300 fighters from al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Eastern Ghouta has left the region beyond the protection of both deals.

However, under a deal brokered between the suburb’s dominant rebel faction, Jaysh al-Islam and the Syrian government, 13 HTS fighters were transported from Eastern Ghouta to HTS-held enclaves in Idlib in northern Syria. None were arrested.

The Eastern Ghouta region was one of the early wellsprings of resistance to the Assad regime and an initial hub for the 2011 revolution. Since then the region has been subject to mass arrests, extrajudicial killings by security forces and a brutal 5-year-long siege.

Regime forces split the suburb in two on March 8, isolating the region’s largest town, Douma. While it has experienced relative calm since, the rest of the suburb has not been so fortunate.

Anas al-Dimashqi, a media activist and resident of Kafr Batna, a town also targeted in the government’s air campaign, told the AP: “They are burning Ghouta to the ground.”