By Neil Sammonds, Syria Researcher at Amnesty International
A girl was hospitalized when she fell ill after starvation drove her family to kill and eat a dog. Others have been admitted for illness caused by eating a waxy mixture of sugar and water used by women to remove body hair. These are just a couple of the horror stories medical workers in Yarmouk, in southern Damascus, have shared with us about life under siege.
Medical workers are correspondingly impacted in the treatment they can provide the sick, the injured and the starving. Facilities have been devastated by the crippling siege imposed by Syrian government forces for more than a year. During the siege, soldiers have arrested 12 medical workers – the fate of six of whom remains unknown – and many others have fled. Medical stores have been destroyed in shelling and looted by armed opposition groups.
As we documented in our report this week, Squeezing the life out of Yarmouk: War crimes against besieged civilians, 194 individuals, all believed to be civilians, have died in the neighbourhood as a result of the siege – mostly due to starvation and the lack of medical care. Since issuing the report, we have received information on 14 other civilians who have died as a result of the siege. One was Diyab Mahena, a medical worker who died on 11 March from injuries sustained a month ago, when he was shot leaving the partially functioning Palestine Hospital in Yarmouk.
The 20,000 or so Palestinian and Syrian civilians trapped and starving inside Yarmouk are among a quarter of a million civilians being besieged by armed forces – mostly government forces – across Syria. A staggering figure. And these are among more than 9.3 million people in Syria in need of humanitarian assistance. A figure that tests the imagination.
To meet their needs, it is desperately vital that Syrian government forces lift the sieges of Yarmouk and other civilian areas. They must allow unfettered access to humanitarian agencies to assist the civilians suffering, not only in those areas but country-wide; all parties must permit aid to reach those who need it by the most efficient means available, including across borders and across conflict lines.
These calls that Amnesty International and others are making upon the Syrian government, as well as similar ones upon armed opposition groups, are among countless calls that we have made over the last three years.
Tragically, the Syrian government has refused to respond positively to almost any of our requests. It has continued to use excessive force – including lethal force – against peaceful protesters. It has continued to detain – and torture and otherwise ill-treat – suspected critics. Syrian government armed forces have continued to target civilians and civilian objects, such as hospitals and schools. They have continued to carry out indiscriminate attacks. They have continued to deny access to the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry to independently investigate what’s happening in the country. And so on, and so on…
The calls we and others have made on armed opposition groups have also fallen mostly on deaf ears.
The intolerable hardships that the people of Syria have had to face – and will continue to face for some time to come – make it more important than ever that Amnesty International and other human rights and humanitarian organizations continue to stand in solidarity with civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict. We will seek to investigate and to document war crimes and crimes against humanity, to campaign and to lobby for those abuses to end, and to call for everyone suspected of ordering or committing them to be brought to justice.
At least some of our calls were belatedly taken up by the UN Security Council, on 22 February, in Resolution 2139. So now is an opportune time for everyone to come together and demand that the Syrian government comply and end the sieges, the killing and maiming of civilians, the deliberate starvation, the torture and arbitrary detention.
This mobilization on behalf of civilians in Syria includes vigils on and around 13 March 2014, when we will be joining thousands of activists around the world to show that we stand #withSyria.
End the suffering of besieged civilians in Syria
Global call to make 3rd anniversary of Syria crisis the last marked by bloodshed (News story, 13 March 2014)
Syria: Yarmouk under siege – a horror story of war crimes, starvation and death (News story/report, 10 March 2014)
UN Security Council: Adoption of resolution offers first sign of hope for Syria (News story, 22 February 2013)