Sahar Dofdaa lived a tragically short and painful life. With sunken eyes and frail, protruding bones, the famished infant hardly stood a chance. Trapped in a Syrian conflict zone, her mother was too malnourished to breastfeed, and her father too impoverished to afford milk supplements.
Freelance journalist Amer Almohibany photographed Sahar for the last time at a medical facility in the war-torn country on Saturday. She died hours later, barely a month old and weighing just 4 pounds.
Almohibany’s heart-wrenching images of the emaciated newborn have once again turned Western attention to the Syrian regime’s siege of eastern Ghouta, where as many as 400,000 people reside, including Sahar’s parents.
Hundreds of civilians in the dilapidated Damascus suburb ― more than half of them children ― have died from food and medication shortages since the siege began in 2012, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said in a report released Tuesday.
Experts warn President Bashar Assad’s government is tightening its noose in the region, causing the already dire situation to deteriorate further.
“They’re really pushing the enclave to the brink of catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of people,” Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Washington-based Syria Institute, told HuffPost. “There’s nothing hopeful to grab onto here.”
Ghouta Under Siege
Eastern Ghouta has been under complete siege since 2013, shortly after a sarin gas attack by regime forces killed an estimated 1,429 people there.
For Assad, encircling Syrian territory and populations is a way to exert dominance and control while defying international human rights actors who oppose his leadership. He has kept the rebel-held area under an increasingly tight blockade, preventing his own desperate citizens from fleeing and keeping them from urgently needed aid supplies, with few exceptions.
The Russian military and Syrian rebels reached a de-escalation agreement on July 22, but Syrian-Russian alliance groups have continued to launch dozens of attacks against civilian facilities in recent months, the report notes.
“At this point, a lot of people have adjusted to this kind of caveman lifestyle that they’ve been living: no electricity and no running water,” Szybala said. “But the Syrian government and its allies are still launching attacks on [civilians], and has recently taken steps to intensify the siege,” limiting access to arable land and profiting off of basic supplies that have drastically escalated in price.
For Abu Azzam and his family in the town of Hamouriya, east Ghouta, this means eating one small meal per day, if they’re lucky. An airstrike on his home two years ago left him and his son permanently disabled, and killed one of his other children. He and his wife, Manal, struggle to care for their surviving sons and daughters.
“Over the past three days, we have only eaten bread,” Manal told the Syrian American Medical Society in a tearful interview. “And that’s thanks to our neighbor, who gave us a small amount of wheat.”
There's nothing hopeful to grab onto here. Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Syria Institute
There are approximately 1,100 cases of malnutrition in eastern Ghouta, including hundreds of people suffering from severe to acute malnourishment, said Dr. Mohamad Katoub, a doctor with SAMS.
“It’s not only malnutrition. Other medical services just aren’t available,” Katoub, who is originally from eastern Ghouta, told HuffPost from Turkey. “We continue to lose people because of this lack of medical treatment ― people who could have been treated very easily.”
The medical sector “has been incredibly depleted,” said Szybala, who worries the humanitarian situation will only worsen as autumn gives way to winter.
Starvation By Siege: Assad’s Weapon Of War
The tactic of sieges, among the most brutal in the Assad regime’s playbook, “has turned into a matter of starving and restricting civilians” with no end in sight, according to Fadel Abdul Ghany, the founder and director of SNHR. “Its cost is higher than any anticipated military objective, and has become a form of collective punishment that denied civilians basic services and food.”
Szybala says she fears “something akin to East Aleppo,” referring to another siege imposed by the Syrian government that also resulted in a hunger crisis and widespread suffering. “I expect we’re going to see a lot of deaths due to siege this winter.”
The plight of eastern Ghouta’s residents also bears gruesome similarities to a prolonged siege in Madaya, Syria. The government blocked aid supplies and basic goods there for over a year, leading to mass casualties.
The international community’s response to the crisis has been utterly inadequate, according to Szybala. “People feel isolated, they feel alone, they feel abandoned ― and they are absolutely right,” she said. “There is no help coming for them.”