Syria: relentless bombardment and starvation tactics at Eastern Ghouta siege are war crimes - new report

Residents look for survivors amid rubble at a site hit by an air strike in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on 14 March © REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
More than 200 people have died from starvation and hundreds of civilians killed in bombing
 
Relentless aerial bombardment and shelling by Syrian government forces is intensifying the suffering of civilians trapped by a siege and facing an escalating humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ghouta, said Amnesty International in a new report published today (12 August).
 
Amnesty’s 75-page report - ‘Left to die under siege’: War crimes and human rights abuses in Eastern Ghouta, Syria - reveals damning evidence of war crimes amid the Syrian government’s siege on Eastern Ghouta, with the unlawful killing of its besieged civilians,  part of a widespread and systematic attack on the area’s civilian population.
 
The report also highlights the agonising struggle to survive of more than 163,000 people living under the Eastern Ghouta siege, as well as exposing abuses by armed groups in the area.
 
Between January and June Syrian government forces carried out at least 60 aerial attacks on Eastern Ghouta, killing around 500 civilians. Amnesty’s report documents 13 air strikes and other attacks which killed 231 civilians and only three fighters. In ten 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. 
 
In addition to daily bombardments, living conditions for the civilians of Eastern Ghouta have continued to deteriorate. Residents have limited access to food, clean water or medical care and essential supplies including electricity and fuel. Checkpoints controlled either by government forces or armed groups restrict their movements in and out of Eastern Ghouta, and government forces have also denied UN agencies and other humanitarian actors free access to the area.
 
More than 200 people have died from starvation or lack of access to adequate medical care in Eastern Ghouta between 21 October 2012 and 31 January this year, according to the Syrian American Medical Society.
 
Amnesty International’s Acting Middle East and North Africa Director Said Boumedouha said: 
 
“For nearly three years the lives of civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been devastated by bloodshed and tragedy.
 
“They are trapped and surrounded by fighting on all fronts with no means to escape the unlawful aerial and shelling attacks waged by government forces.
 
“Their anguish is compounded by dwindling supplies of food, clean water and other crucial necessities which mean that daily life for many has become a prolonged experience of hardship and suffering.
 
“Government forces are using starvation as a weapon of war in flagrant violation of international law. Withholding food and basic supplies required to survive is a vicious act of cruelty amounting to collective punishment of the civilian population.”
 

Attacks on markets and mosques

Satellite imagery analysis shows that aerial attacks carried out between 28 December and 10 February have completely destroyed multiple residential buildings in the vicinity of Taha mosque in Douma. One eyewitness - called Amir - said that he saw nine bodies scattered on the streets near the mosque killed by an airstrike on 9 February. He added that residential buildings, an underground field hospital and a school were also destroyed.  
 
On the same day, Amir witnessed another strike on another mosque in Douma. He described to Amnesty how displaced families including children were killed in the attack that struck Douma’s al-Ansar mosque where they had sought refuge. “Nowhere is safe,” he said. 
 
Public markets are also on the list of Syrian government’s targets. “It was a disaster,” one eyewitness said, describing the aftermath of the attack on the market in Kafr Batna on 5 February. Residents said the attack took place at 1pm - the “busiest hour of the day” - and also destroyed two nearby residential buildings. There was no trace of a military target nearby. In a similarly shocking attack on 25 January, Syrian air force jets bombed a market in Hamouria shortly after Friday prayers as crowds of people poured out of a nearby mosque to buy sugar sold that day at a discounted price, killing more than 40 civilians. “I could only see blood. It was horrific, like nothing I have seen before,” an eyewitness said. 
 
Syrian government forces also repeatedly fired imprecise rockets and mortars or unguided bombs into populated areas in a series of direct and indiscriminate attacks on civilians amounting to war crimes.
 

Life under siege: starvation, black market profiteering

An emerging black market “war economy” has seen smugglers and members of armed groups or government officials profit at the expense of civilians. Syrian government forces routinely confiscate food at checkpoints forcing residents to buy goods on the black market often for up to ten times the price of goods in central Damascus.
 
Marwan, a local resident from Jesrine, said he’d lost more than 15kg in weight because of the siege. He spent days without eating in order to ensure his four children and wife could eat once a day. “What will it take for the United Nations to do something about it? Is starvation the only answer?”, he said.
 
Residents also said Army of Islam (Jaysh al Islam) fighters and their families had abundant food while civilians were forced to pay hugely inflated prices. Amnesty’s report also discloses that armed groups, particularly the Army of Islam, are guilty of an array of abuses including abductions, arbitrary detentions and indiscriminate shelling. Their use of imprecise weapons such as mortars and Grad rockets in populated areas amounts to war crimes.
 

International action desperately needed

More than a year ago the UN Security Council adopted two resolutions intended to alleviate the suffering of Syria’s civilians, calling on all parties to the conflict to end attacks on civilians, lift all sieges, grant unfettered humanitarian access and release anyone arbitrarily detained. So far, however, they have failed to assuage the suffering of most civilians. 
 
Amnesty is calling on the Security Council to urgently impose targeted sanctions against all parties to the conflict in Syria responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as an arms embargo on the Syrian government. The Syrian government should ensure unfettered access for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to the country as well as other human rights monitors, including Amnesty. 
 

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