03/03/2018 3:45 AM IST | Updated 07/03/2018 12:08 AM IST

Syrians Fight For Survival Amid Assad's Poison Gas Warfare

In Syria’s Ghouta region, attacks continue even after a United Nations ceasefire.

Syrian director Humam Husari, right, and cameraman Sami al-Shami, center, film a scene in the rebel-held besieged town of Zamalka, Syria, on Sept. 19, 2016.

It’s exactly 3:00 p.m. in eastern Ghouta when Humam Husari calls. “I’m in the basement,” says the 31-year-old Syrian, speaking by phone to HuffPost Germany. The connection is poor, but it doesn’t break up. There is still internet in the rebel enclave near Damascus, which has been under siege by the Syrian regime for five years. WhatsApp is the only link to the outside.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army is trying to bleed out the area, where about 400,000 people are said to be trapped. Despite a United Nations resolution on Saturday calling for a 30-day ceasefire, Syria’s government continued to bombard the region on Sunday and Monday.

“It’s the eighth day in a row that the bombs have been falling,” Husari tells HuffPost. The filmmaker, who has been based in Ghouta for five years, pauses for a moment as if to make sure that the air raid is over. “The bombing just got too intense,” he says.

In desperation, the people of Ghouta have sought refuge in their basements. But since reports of renewed chlorine gas attacks have started making the rounds, even the basements don’t feel safe anymore.

Bassam Khabieh / Reuters
Smoke rises from besieged eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, on Feb. 27, 2018. 

Drones Over The City

It’s Sunday evening, less than 24 hours after the international community agreed to a ceasefire. Even Russia, Assad’s closest ally in the fight against the rebels, voted in favor.

Airplanes, helicopters, and even drones take to the skies, Husari says. They register every movement that someone makes on the street. “Then artillery fire starts immediately,” he explains.

According to a few shaky mobile phone videos and photos that spread on Twitter on Monday, the attackers used chlorine gas. Even at a low concentration, the gas can be corrosive, damaging the skin and the respiratory tract.

According to the pro-opposition Observatory for Human Rights, one child died, a woman is in critical condition, and at least 13 others are injured.  

Bassam Khabieh / Reuters
A boy is treated at a medical center in Saqba, Syria, on Aug. 21, 2013, after government forces fired rockets that released deadly fumes over the rebel-held Damascus suburbs.

The Darkest Day Of The War

People in Ghouta have been victims of toxic gas attacks before. The chemical attack on Aug. 21, 2013 not only ended the lives of more than 1,000 people in southwest Syria, it also became the turning point in the war.

U.S. intelligence quickly pinned the operation on Assad, and U.S. President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a military intervention. The Kremlin increasingly started to take the side of its Middle Eastern ally, turning the Syrian conflict into a playground for international hostilities.

For the people of Ghouta, Aug. 21 is probably the darkest day of this war. “I’ve seen 1,500 people die of the toxic gas sarin,” says Husari, who made a short movie about the survivors of the attack.

He knows that the Syrian regime denies carrying out the attack. So does Russia. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov referred to “nonsense stories from East Ghouta, which cite an anonymous source claiming that chlorine gas was used.”

But Husari does not remain anonymous. He knows what’s happening in his region, and how absurd the regime’s accusations are that the rebels are using the banned weapons themselves.

“It makes no sense. Why would the opposition target their own people?” he said.

A child is treated in the besieged city of Douma, Syria, on Feb. 25, 2018.

Heavy Artillery And No Way Out

While families persevered in the basements of the settlements, several battles occured on the streets on Monday between different rebel groups that are involved in armed resistance against Assad in Ghouta. In this part of the country, they are almost the last to stand in the way of the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis.

Also among the rebels are Salafists, jihadis and former al Qaeda cadres. In the city of Douma, the jihadi militia Jaysh al-Islam is in charge, and in the western part of the region, it’s the Failaq al-Rahman group, belonging to the Free Syrian Army. New videos allegedly show fighters from the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham firing on Assad forces in the region with heavy anti-tank missiles.

Any attempt to break through the government’s blockade on humanitarian access seems futile, just as the government’s repeated promises of an evacuation seem improbable. “That is not an option. It just won’t happen,” Husari tells HuffPost.

Then there is a bang in the background. Briefly, things are quiet. “Artillery,” Husari says, before swiftly continuing to speak, almost as if nothing had happened. If people can’t even leave their basements, how could an evacuation be possible?

NurPhoto via Getty Images
A man sifts through trash in Douma, Syria, on Aug. 8, 2015, amid the Assad regime's blockade on food and medicine in eastern Ghouta.

Running Out Of Food And Diapers

Staying in basements, shelters, and hiding places is all about persisting, especially for children and their mothers. “There are 10 to 20 births in Ghouta every day,” Husari says. “In terrible conditions — in the basements.”

There are no more diapers, and food is scarce. “People are trying hard to find some more grain or flour to bake bread down here,” he explains.

People are very hungry, which is becoming increasingly life-threatening, especially for the youngest children. Most mothers no longer have milk for their babies and don’t know how to keep them alive.

Doctors, surgeons and medical assistants have also fled underground. Since the beginning of the bombing, the Assad regime has been targeting hospitals ― a treacherous strategy that Damascus and Moscow deployed during the siege of Aleppo. Thirteen hospitals have been severely damaged in recent days, according to Doctors Without Borders.

“Those still working have been set up underground. But care is very poor,” Husari says.

‘The Last Thing People Here Think About’

Husari seems calm. Only his frequent sighing reveals how worried he is. He knows the war is far from over. That there will be more attacks ― possibly with poison gas.

He reports that people are preparing and collecting water, vinegar and towels to be able to protect their mouths and noses in an emergency. But these resources are also becoming scarce.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has not yet been able to initiate the delivery of relief supplies for the civilian population because of the ongoing lack of security guarantees, a spokeswoman for the German Press Agency said.

Most urgently needed are medical products, but also food. The U.N. ceasefire is supposed to create a window of opportunity for aid deliveries. But the people of Ghouta have long since stopped believing in such promises.

Nevertheless, Husari does not want to talk about politics. “That’s the last thing people here think about. For the world, it’s all politics; for us, it’s the struggle for survival,” he says.

Then he sighs again. “I sure would like to explain my political views to you. But I think they couldn’t matter less at the moment.”

The original version of this story appears on HuffPost Germany.

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