Syrians in Ghouta scramble for safety as bombing builds


Douma (Syria) (AFP)

As cars of fleeing civilians zipped around him, Syrian shepherd Abu Qassem led his flock of shabby-looking sheep out of their battered hometown in Eastern Ghouta.

Carrying nothing but a walking stick and pale green handkerchief, Abu Qassem shuffled his sheep north, narrowly escaping the bombing hitting Beit Sawa.

Just hours after he escaped, government troops overran the town as part of their blistering assault on the rebel-controlled enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

On February 18, Syrian and allied forces intensified their air campaign on Eastern Ghouta, launching a ground offensive to retake the last opposition bastion near Damascus a week later.

On Wednesday, a barrage of air strikes and artillery on Beit Sawa and the nearby town of Misraba sent dozens of residents scrambling north into Douma, the largest town.

"We escaped Beit Sawa to come here, under the bombs," said Abu Qassem on the road into Douma, his cheekbones jutting out from his gaunt face.

"The situation is completely dead. Finished. We've got no clothes. Nothing to change into. No food," he said.

Eastern Ghouta's 400,000 residents have lived under a crippling government siege since 2013, making food, medicine, and other daily goods exceedingly rare.

"We have nothing to eat at all except these, which we escaped with," said Abu Qassem, gesturing to his herd, which had rushed over to a stubby palm tree to graze.

The streets were lined with scenes of devastation: rows of buildings that had crumpled in on themselves from bombardment, burned out cars, electricity poles leaning dangerously into the street.

- Fleeing with wheelbarrows -

But Abu Qassem has been left so desperate by the siege, he started selling off his sheep as he trudged along the road.

Two young lambs went for the painfully low price of 10,000 Syrian pounds each -- just $20.

The Syria Observatory for Human Rights estimates more than 10,000 people have been displaced by the government offensive, fleeing to other towns and villages in the encircled region.

On the same road into Douma, residents pushed wheelbarrows and wooden carts piled high with mattresses, rugs, and cardboard boxes.

When an air strike slammed into a town in the distance, they stopped briefly, looked out at the expanding column of smoke, then resumed their journeys.

Motorcycles, trucks, and even bicycles whizzed past each other frantically, narrowly avoiding several collisions.

Fleeing civilians looked desperate and terrified as they streamed past.

One 80-year-old, Abu Nazem, struggled to push himself down the street in his wheelchair, calling out weakly for someone to help him find something to eat.

As night fell, bombing escalated on towns across the enclave.

Wounded people were brought into the town on motorcycles, reporting heavy air strikes and shelling on the road itself.

More than 810 civilians have been killed since the regime began its bombing campaign on Eastern Ghouta a little over two weeks ago.

They included at least 18 civilians killed Wednesday, according to the Britain-based Observatory.