U.N. Calling For Cease-Fire After Hundreds Of Civilians Killed In Damascus Suburb

Feb 21, 2018
Originally published on February 22, 2018 7:00 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Syria, more than 200 people have been killed in three days of airstrikes on a rebel-held suburb of the capital, Damascus. Government forces appear to be gearing up for a ground invasion of the district of eastern Ghouta, where there are hundreds of thousands of civilians. Aid groups and the U.N. have called for a cease-fire, so far to no effect. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from Beirut.

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RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: An airstrike on the rebel-held eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus - it's caught on camera by a volunteer with the White Helmets rescue group. They're out searching for bodies amid the rubble of another destroyed building. And then this bomb explodes with sickening impact, and the camera is enveloped in a cloud of dust.

It's been like this for three days. Residents and aid groups say the Syrian government and its allies are pounding Ghouta with airstrikes, artillery shells and barrel bombs - crude metal drums filled with TNT that cut through to basements where people are hiding.

SAMAR: (Through interpreter) Today the doors and windows shattered. Everything is collapsing around us. The situation is unimaginable.

SHERLOCK: We speak to Samar, a resident who doesn't want to use her last name. She's one of more than 350,000 civilians trapped in this enclave. It's under siege, which means that for families like Samar and her three children, there's just no way out. She's been posting videos online of her daughter appealing to help, hoping it will draw international attention to their situation. She tells NPR her children are too afraid to leave her side.

SAMAR: (Through interpreter) We're holding onto each other and scared for each other's lives. When we hear a plane above us, we all start hugging. We're afraid, but it's not in our hands. The sound is monstrous.

SHERLOCK: Monitoring groups say this aerial campaign has taken more than 200 lives in the last 72 hours. Residents posted images of rows of dead children lined up on the floor, each small body wrapped in a white cloth. Ramesh Rajasingham, the deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria for the United Nations, says one of the reasons the death toll is so high is that medical facilities are being targeted.

RAMESH RAJASINGHAM: So it's a vicious cycle. They're being bombed. They're being injured and killed, and there's no way to treat them.

SALAH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Salah, a doctor in eastern Ghouta, asks not to give his name. He was working in a hospital yesterday when it was hit. Then his home was destroyed in an airstrike last night. But today he's back at work, helping in another hospital.

SALAH: (Through interpreter) Just today in the field hospital I'm working in, there have been so far 35 people who've died and 180 with various injuries.

SHERLOCK: Rebels have had control of this area for many years. They've repeatedly fired shells on central Damascus, and yesterday, monitoring groups said those shells killed several people. The Syrian government has been getting the upper hand in the wider war, and it now wants to make a concerted effort to take this territory back. The United Nations has appealed over and over for a break in the fighting and to allow civilians to leave. But so far, those calls are going unheeded.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: In this video, a father reaches into a pickup truck and picks up the body of his lifeless child, who's wrapped in a cloth. The person filming tells the truck driver to wait. Give him a moment to say goodbye, he says, crying. Give him a moment to say goodbye. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.