Cork woman Máiread Collins is Christian Aid’s Advocacy Officer for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In this exclusive piece she reveals the terrifying twilight world the people of Eastern Ghouta now inhabit and introduces the world to aid worker Mustapha, now just another casualty of the ongoing conflict.
Mustapha was loved for many things – his enthusiasm, his tenacity and his ability to constantly come up with novel ideas to try and improve people’s lives. Attributes that would be popular anywhere, but particularly in the middle of a conflict.
On February 9th, 30-year-old Mustapha, a trained agriculturalist, began his day in the Syrian town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta.
As head of a community centre for a Syrian civil society NGO, he oversaw their work trying to sustain the livelihoods of the community. Ghouta used to be known as the bread basket of Syria, situated in fertile green lands. But for over five years now it has suffered under besiegement.
In a town with no proper access to humanitarian aid and where medical services are severely limited, Mustafa kept going, kept helping others – however bad things got. And he inspired his colleagues to do the same.
In the past few weeks, the aerial shelling of Eastern Ghouta has intensified. Bombs rained overhead all day and every day. Yet Mustapha and his colleagues continued to do their very best to bring support to families when they could.
At 9pm on the 9th, Mustapha’s house was hit by a shell. Later he was pulled from the rubble with catastrophic chest injuries.
Despite the efforts of medical staff, he died some hours later. Mustapha, survived by his wife, mother and younger brothers, joined the list of now hundreds of civilians who have lost their lives in recent days in what has been rightly called a massacre of Eastern Ghouta.
Speaking on the phone earlier today, a staff member at one of Christian Aid’s partner organisations, and one of Mustapha’s colleagues, described the terrifying twilight world the people of Eastern Ghouta now inhabit.
As the incessant shelling hails down daily on them, they have sought shelter underground wherever they can. They do not have sufficient access to water, electricity or food in these subterranean spaces, described as “underground graveyards” where people wait for death, feeling abandoned by the world.
Our partner organisation’s staff slip out after darkness when the shelling has ended – to take the opportunity to update their HQs based outside Syria, and to try and find food for their families trapped underground.
They search for basics likes rice and flour to make bread, but even these are difficult to find, their team member told me on the phone. In the last five years of besiegement basic supplies were sold at a premium, but in recent days prices have as much as tripled.
Christian Aid was supporting a food kitchen in the Eastern Ghouta town of Sabqa. This last week the building was shelled and it is now beyond use. Despite the overwhelming challenges they face, they are still trying to find somewhere else to set their work up and continue serving their community – but this massive inflation of prices will make their work even harder.
For the thousands that have been injured, the space for medical support is shrinking every day. There are almost no medical supplies left, and yesterday it was reported that 13 medical facilities were out of service due to direct shelling.
This has even included a Red Crescent centre in the town of Herasta and a White Helmets centre in Douma.
These indiscriminate attacks targeting civilian populations, on medical facilities and on schools are in direct violation of international humanitarian law, as are the ongoing blocks in access to humanitarian aid of these besieged communities of Eastern Ghouta.
Speaking of international law seems almost farcical in the midst of accounts of children trapped in subterranean hideaways without food or water and the very real sense of the people there that the international community has forgotten them.
But let’s be clear, the current massacre of Eastern Ghouta did not happen overnight: this is an area that has been besieged for five years. Even while the smoke was rising off the ruins of the destruction of Eastern Aleppo in December 2016 and the international community was saying it must never happen again, even then Eastern Ghouta was being shelled and its people trapped without aid.
The complexity of the war in Syria – coming into its eighth year, with its head-spinning number of militias and the involvement of various international actors – has made it too easy not to listen to the voices of civilian society over the roar of this chaos. A civil society that includes people like Mustapha.
Today, as the UN calls for immediate ceasefires and a de-escalation of violence from all actors with immediate access for humanitarian relief, those voices must be heard. How many more massacres of children, women and men must we tolerate before we stand up and say that enough is enough?
Máiréad Collins is the Advocacy Officer for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon at Christian Aid. This article was originally posted in the Irish Examiner on Friday 23 February 2018.