Horrifying footage from the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta in Syria shows women and children running for their lives as the dust settles after yet another government air strike.
The video, filmed by White Helmet rescue workers, sees civilians crawling out of the remains of their homes and scrambling to a van, as President Bashar Al-Assad continues his siege of the area on the outskirts of Damascus.
Russian-backed regime forces, broke into a key town in the beleaguered rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta late Wednesday, driving further into the last opposition bastion outside Damascus.
Fleeing: Video from rebel-held Eastern Ghouta in Syria shows a woman carrying her child out of a building to run for safety after another government strike
Young women and children are seen clambering over remains of their homes to get to a waiting van to escape the shelling
More than 1,220 civilians – a fifth of them children – have been killed in the rebel-held enclave since the Syrian regime launched a ferocious air and ground offensive on February 18.
Thousands are reported to have been able to escape Eastern Ghouta into government-held territory on Thursday, via the town of Hammuriyeh, where the Syrian army had opened a corridor after a late-night advance.
Meanwhile, Moscow has for the first time clearly confirmed that its military is playing a role in the assault on Eastern Ghouta, after previously providing few details of its involvement in the offensive.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today: ‘We will continue fighting terrorists, we will finish them off, we will help finish them off in Eastern Ghouta, where the Syrian army is now conducting operations with our support’.
Under attack: A wounded Syrian toddler is carried after receiving medical treatment a makeshift clinic in Eastern Ghouta following reported shelling by Russia-backed Syrian government forces on the seventh anniversary of the conflict
Victim: A wounded toddler is carried at a makeshift clinic in Hazeh, in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus after being injured in government shelling
Heartbreaking: The bodies of two Syrian children are prepared for burial at a makeshift clinic in Kafr Batna after they killed by Syrian government airstrikes in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday
Seven years of hell: Smoke billows over Hazeh, in Eastern Ghouta during reported shelling by Syrian government forces on Thursday – the seventh anniversary of the civil war in Syria
Today, on the seventh anniversary of the Syrian civil war, the country looks nowhere near peace and unity, with battles on several fronts with a number of combatants.
International efforts have consistently failed to stop one of the deadliest wars of the century, with more than 350,000 people killed since the conflict first erupted, and more than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 20 million displaced.
The war started on March 15, 2011 when the Assad government cracked down on mostly peaceful protests and has since splintered into ever more complicated conflicts.
While the past few months saw the collapse of ISIS’s so-called ‘caliphate’ state across the border of Syria and Iraq, there are several other groups – terrorist and non-terrorist – looking to carve out a place of their own across the country.
TIMELINE OF THE CIVIL WAR IN SYRIA
What started as a violent and shocking repression of peaceful demonstrations and protests seven years ago has turned into a full-scale civil war fought between a number of rebel groups, nations, coalitions and leaders.
REVOLT AND REPRESSION
On March 15, 2011, unprecedented protests demand civil liberties and the release of political prisoners after four decades of repressive rule by the Assad family.
Denouncing ‘an armed rebellion by Salafist groups’, the regime represses demonstrations in Damascus and the southern city of Daraa but protests continue.
In July, defecting army colonel Riad al-Assad sets up the Turkey-based rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Islamist groups join the revolt.
Before the war: Anti-Syrian government protesters pass next to burning tyres set alight by the protesters, following clashes between the Syrian security forces and protesters, in the southern city of Daraa in March, 2011
AIR STRIKES, HEZBOLLAH, IRAN
In March 2012, regime forces take control of the rebel stronghold in third city Homs after a month of bombardment. Other bloody operations are carried out, notably in the central city of Hama, after massive anti-regime protests.
In July, FSA fighters launch a battle for Damascus but the government holds firm.
From 2013, regime helicopters and planes unleash crude barrel bombs on rebel zones.
The same year, Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah says it is fighting alongside Syrian government forces.
Iran also boosts its military support for longtime ally Assad.
In August 2013, Washington accuses the regime of killing more than 1,400 people with chemical weapons in rebel-held districts near Damascus.
In September, the United States and Assad ally Russia agree a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, averting punitive US strikes against the regime.
But forces on the ground, in particular from the regime, have been accused of using chemical weapons since.
In April 2017, a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun kills more than 80 people, prompting Washington to attack a regime air base.
RISE OF ISIS
In January 2014, hostilities between jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and rebel groups turn into an open war in the north.
ISIL, the future Islamic State (IS) group, takes Raqqa – the first provincial capital to fall out of regime control – from rebel forces.
The jihadist offensive allows Damascus to justify its fight as a battle against ‘terrorism’.
A jihadist nation: Islamist terrorist group ISIL – later ISIS or IS – declared a ‘caliphate’ in 2014 and ended up controlling territory in both Iraq and Syria before its fall in 2017. This picture was taken as the islamist terrorist organisation had taken control of Mosul in Iraq
In September 2014, a US-led coalition launches air strikes against IS in Syria.
The strikes benefit Kurdish groups, which since 2013 have run autonomous administrations in Kurdish-majority areas and go on to oust IS from key areas.
RUSSIA COMES TO ASSAD’S AID
In September 2015, Russia launches air strikes in support of Assad’s troops, who are on the back foot.
Russian firepower helps turn the tables for the regime, which begins to retake rebel-held territory, including second city Aleppo in late December 2016.
In January 2017, Russia and Iran, as backers of the Syrian regime, and Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, organise talks in Kazakhstan, between representatives of both sides.
The process leads to the creation of four so-called ‘de-escalation zones’, although sporadic fighting and bombardments continue.
In an added complication to the drawn-out conflict, Turkey launches an operation in January 2018 against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which, with US support, played a key role in beating back IS.
The militia controls the Afrin region on the border with Turkey, and Ankara is wary of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy, labelling the YPG a ‘terror group’.
BLITZ OF EASTERN GHOUTA
On February 18, the Syrian regime launches a ferocious assault on the remaining rebel-held enclave near Damascus, Eastern Ghouta.
In less than four weeks, the Russian-backed onslaught kills more than 1,220 civilians, a fifth of them children, according to the Observatory.
US-backed Kurds hold oil-rich territory in northeastern Syria covering 30 percent of the country and a motley assortment of Turkey-backed Arab rebels are cutting a third haven in the northwest.
Ankara, which launched a deadly ground and air offensive against the Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin on January 20, vowed on Wednesday that its encirclement of the main city ‘will have been completed by the evening’, a Turkish presidency source said.
The claim was laughed off by a top official in the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which controls Afrin.
‘It sounds like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is daydreaming when he says Afrin will fall tonight,’ Redur Khalil told AFP.
On Wednesday, Turkish bombing raids killed ten fighters loyal to the Syrian regime, which has deployed pro-government forces to the fray after the Kurds asked for help.
Shells rained down on Afrin city, killing ten civilians including four children.
Displaced families have swelled the city’s population to around 350,000, and officials feared a humanitarian crisis should Turkish forces draw closer.
Fleeing: Members from the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Red Cross help dozens of civilians from Eastern Ghouta through the safe corridor leading to al-Wafedeen camp in order to be transported to makeshift centers in Damascus
Scores of civilians, mostly women and children, arrived in al-Wafedeen camp on Wednesday afternoon via the safe corridor after securing their exit by the units of the Syrian Arab Army, according to a Syrian news agency
Casualties: A man wounded in an air strike is helped by other civilians in Hazeh, in Eastern Ghouta on Thursday
‘TORTURE ARCHIPELAGOS’: OVER 60,000 KILLED IN REGIME JAILS DURING SYRIA WAR
At least 60,000 people have died from torture or harsh conditions in Syrian regime custody since the conflict began in March 2011, according to human rights activists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says says half a million people have passed through regime jails.
Damascus has strongly denied the allegations against it and has pointed to gross abuses by its opponents, both jihadists and other rebels.
In July 2012, US-based group Human Rights Watch said Syria was holding tens of thousands of detainees in a ‘torture archipelago’ of 27 detention facilities nationwide.
‘Almost all’ of detainees described experiencing or witnessing torture, including ‘prolonged beatings, often with objects such as batons and wires, burning with car battery acid, sexual assault and humiliation, the pulling of fingernails and mock execution ‘, HRW said.
In February 2016, UN investigators said that ‘the mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination’.
A year later, human rights organisation Amnesty International said as many as 13,000 people were hanged between 2011 and 2015 at the notorious Saydnaya military-run prison near Damascus.
It said the mass hangings came on top of the 17,700 people it had already recorded as having perished in regime prisons since the start of the conflict in March 2011.
In May 2017, Washington claimed that Damascus had built a ‘crematorium’ at Saydnaya to cover up thousands of prisoner deaths.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that Turkey-led forces controlled 70 per cent of the wider Kurdish enclave, after seizing several villages.
Hundreds of miles south of Afrin, another humanitarian emergency continues to unfold in Eastern Ghouta.
The Observatory said regime forces had penetrated into the town of Hammuriyeh in the enclave and were able to take control of parts of it amid heavy bombardment.
A doctor in the area said rescue teams could not get to victims because of the intensity of the bombardment.
‘The wounded are on the roads. We can’t move them. The war planes are targeting anything that moves,’ Ismail al-Khateeb said.
The United Nations has called for urgent medical evacuations for more than 1,000 people who desperately need medical treatment outside the besieged area.
A trickle of evacuations from Ghouta’s largest town Douma and Hammouriyeh began Tuesday under a deal with rebels, and more patients were allowed out Wednesday and Thursday.
The Observatory said more than 3,000 people had left Hammouriyeh town towards positions held by advancing government forces, which have splintered eastern Ghouta into three separate pockets.
It marked the first time a large group of people had fled the enclave since the army launched an offensive to recapture it last month, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.
At a Red Crescent centre in Douma on Wednesday morning, people crowded around buses and ambulances to be evacuated.
Among them, 18-year-old Omran stood leaning on crutches. Badly wounded two years ago in bombardment on Ghouta, he was missing his left leg, right arm, and left eye.
‘We haven’t been able to treat some of these cases for more than a year,’ said Mohammed al-Marhum, a doctor.
The patients were transported to the government-controlled Wafideen checkpoint on the edges of Ghouta.
The UN Security Council demanded a 30-day truce last month to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations from Ghouta.
Such evacuations in Syria typically see people taken out of a besieged area for care, and then transported back in after treatment.
The Syrian government’s assault on Ghouta has split the enclave into three sections, each controlled by different rebels.
Civilians have fled Afrin city in recent days as battles rage between Turkish-backed forces and Kurdish fighters
The UN Security Council demanded a 30-day truce last month to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations from Ghouta
Syrian regime forces, backed by Moscow, have pounded the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, driving further into the last opposition bastion outside Damascus
The war in Syria started on March 15, 2011 when the Assad government cracked down on mostly peaceful protests and has since splintered into ever more complicated conflicts
The regime has reportedly been pursuing separate tracks of negotiations to secure local truces or evacuations from each zone.
The Russian military said the situation in Douma had ‘significantly stabilised’ and an aid convoy of 20 vehicles was planned to enter the enclave on Thursday.
Fresh regime and Russian bombardment Wednesday killed at least 31 civilians in an isolated southern zone of Ghouta, the Observatory said.
State news agency SANA said five civilians died of their wounds after shelling on Damascus.
Moscow’s strikes also killed a dozen rebels from the Faylaq al-Rahman faction controlling the area, including two top commanders, the monitor said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday Ghouta rebels were planning to stage a chemical attack to give the US-led coalition the pretext to strike Damascus.
His comments came as his Turkish counterpart visited Moscow for talks.
‘I WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR, BUT I GOT MARRIED AT 14’: RISE OF SYRIAN CHILD BRIDES IN REFUGEE CAMPS
A growing number of Syrian girls whose families have been forced to flee the country are forced into marriage, as war and displacement has plunged the population into poverty, aid groups say.
Around one in five Syrian girls aged between 15 and 19 living in Lebanon is married, according to the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF).
UNICEF fears more young girls will be married off to escape poverty as more than three quarters of the refugees in Lebanon are living below the poverty line and struggling to survive on less than $4 per day.
Child bride: Aziza, a Syrian refugee living in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, is only 17 years old but has already been married twice and given birth to her baby son
Aziza, 17, from Aleppo, now lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon with her family and her son after two broken marriages.
Aziza’s parents arranged for her to marry her cousin when she was 14. Her mother, Rashida, said it was normal for girls her age to become brides in their Syrian tribe as it protected them from harassment and reduced pressure on the family budget.
‘I regret that I got married,’ Aziza, who declined to give her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as her eyes welled up with tears. ‘The girls that are my age are now studying. They have ambition. I have nothing. I am totally destroyed.’
Aziza lives with her mother, father and five siblings in a small tent covered in plastic sheets in eastern Lebanon’s fertile Bekaa Valley – home to more than 300,000 refugees, the most densely populated area of refugees in Lebanon.
They escaped their hometown of Aleppo five years ago.
‘My life in Syria was beautiful,’ said Aziza, whose small-frame and adolescent features make her look younger than her years – a striking image of a child holding a child.
‘I used to go to school … and wanted to be a doctor,’ said Aziza whose favorite subject was Arabic.
No choice: UNICEF warns that teenage girls like Aziza run an increasingly higher risk of being married off in the refugee camps
Her father and two of her sisters earn about 6,000 Lebanese Pounds ($4) a day, picking grapes and potatoes seasonally.
‘I have four daughters, I can’t give them everything they need,’ said Rashida, adding that poverty was one reason they decided that Aziza should marry her 17-year-old cousin.
Aziza said she did not oppose the marriage at first, but she divorced after one year because of troubles with her mother-in-law and moved back into her parents’ tent.
When other refugees in her community started to ‘gossip’ about her because she was divorced, she said the shame drove her into a second marriage, aged 16, to a 30-year-old Syrian man.
‘I didn’t like him. I only married him because people were talking,’ she said from inside her family’s tent. Aziza said she left the man after about a year because he physically abused her.
Kafa, a local rights group, is calling on Lebanon to pass a law to make 18 the minimum age for marriage.
There is no minimum age of marriage in Lebanon. Religious communities’ personal status laws can allow girls younger than 15 to marry, according to Human Rights Watch.
The rights group said Lebanon is behind many other countries in the region that have set 18 as the minimum marriage age, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.
‘It is escalating … because they are living in a very closed community,’ said Salwa Al Homsi, a spokeswoman for Kafa.
‘The parents, they cannot afford to support their children.’
Nearly 35 percent of women aged 20 to 24 in Western Bekaa surveyed in 2016 were married before reaching 18, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).
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