Children among first medical evacuees from besieged Syrian rebel bastion, after months of delays
Bashar al-Assad’s government has allowed a handful of some of the hundreds of desperate patients in a besieged area of Damascus out for treatment, after months of delays which left more than a dozen dead.
Aid workers began evacuating emergency medical cases from Syria’s rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday night.
So far 29 women and children suffering from heart disease, cancer, kidney failure and blood diseases or requiring surgery not available in the suburb, have been granted permission to leave under a deal brokered by the government and rebels.
The first four were a girl with haemophilia, a baby with the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre, a child with leukaemia, and a man in need of a kidney transplant.
One eight-year-old girl gave a broad smile as she boarded a Syrian Red Crescent ambulance, wearing a woolly hat and gloves against the cold.
The United Nations is calling for the evacuation of 500 of the most serious medical cases still stranded in the enclave.
Jan Egeland, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria, said 494 people were on the priority list for medical evacuations submitted in November.
"That number is going down, not because we are evacuating people but because they are dying," he said. "We have tried now every single week for many months to get medical evacuations out, and food and other supplies in."
The world body said its aid workers described seeing one of the worst health situations since the conflict began in 2011 during a rare international aid convoy at the end of November. It has previously described the regime’s "starve or surrender" tactic as a weapon of war.
Some 17 patients, including several infants, have died in recent months because of the ongoing siege and lack of access.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the last remaining rebel strongholds in Syria and has been under a tight government siege since 2013, causing severe food and medical shortages for its nearly 400,000 residents.
While some food is still grown locally, or smuggled in, humanitarian access to the region has been limited despite regular appeals from aid agencies.
Lack of fuel and and the cold winter is only worsening the residents’ hardship.
One resident told the Telegraph that food shortages meant many were suffering from severe malnutrition.
“Some families who have little money have only grass to eat,” activist Wasem al-Khateb said via What’sApp from Eastern Ghouta. “There is food, but it is too expensive for many. One loaf of bread can coast $25. I am only eating once a day like many others who are rationing.
"Every day is like hell and gets worse and worse. You can’t imagine.”
The dominant rebel faction in Eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), said on Wednesday that the rebels had agreed to free some of the government’s prisoners in return for the evacuations.
"We have agreed to the release of a number of prisoners… in exchange for the evacuation of the most urgent humanitarian cases," the group said a statement.
It is understood Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, also directly intervened to help secure the release.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the four “de-escalation zones” agreed by both sides of the conflict and their backers Iran, Russia and Turkey during peace talks in Kazakhstan earlier this year.
Despite this, Syrian and Russian air and ground assaults have escalated in recent weeks, leaving scores of civilians dead.
The Syrian government sees Ghouta as key to regaining its legitimacy around the capital.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who advises the British charity Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which operates in Eastern Ghouta, said they had appealed to the Syrian regime to allow the most serious cases out.
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“When we were made aware of the seven children in Ghouta dying of treatable cancer about 10 days ago we decided to try appealing to Assad directly,” he told the Telegraph.
He said an evacuation would not include three-month-old baby Karim, who lost an eye and part of his skull in a government attack and became a symbol of the suffering there.
“We got a good response from Assad’s office saying he was thinking about it over Christmas and then on December 26 he decided to allow 29 children out,” he said.
“I’m not sure they would have lived otherwise.”