By Bas Spliet
Image: An injured man in the emergency room of al-Mwassat University Hospital © Bas Spliet
Damascus – I arrived in Damascus the day before yesterday, on 6 April. With the exception of the city of Douma, the whole of Eastern Ghouta had gradually come under the control of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) since the military started a major operation in February to take control of the insurgents’ last major stronghold in the northern vicinity of the Syrian capital. Fighters from Jaish al-Islam – the only remaining rebel group which, literally translated, means the Army of Islam – were being bussed to other rebel-held areas across Syria, and it looked like the final negotiations were under way. I figured that the last of the indiscriminate mortar shelling which had plagued Damascus over the last seven years had finally come to an end. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.
Soon, the news started pouring in that mutual bombing by the SAA and the rebels had resumed following the breaking down of the fragile truce due to internal disagreements amongst the foreign-backed militancy. According to the state-owned SANA news network, four civilians died and 22 were killed in the indiscriminate attacks targeting the capital’s civilian population of Friday, which was Good Friday for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Yesterday, the agony and horror Syrians have to go through on a daily basis became painstakingly clear to me. Around 9 AM, I took a taxi from the city centre to the Ministry of Information, the government agency that supervises foreign journalists. As we approached Umayyin Square, soldiers waved their arms and ordered the driver to stop the car. A mortar had landed on the roundabout, destroying multiple vehicles. A severely injured man was bleeding on the ground. Confused, I got out of the taxi, and after the soldiers lifted him into the vehicle, the taxi driver I was just moments ago trying to converse with in my best Arabic drove him off to the nearest hospital. I don’t know if he survived.
After wandering around a bit, I got into another taxi and finally arrived at my destination. After I got all my paper work done, I got the opportunity to go to visit the al-Mwassat University Hospital, which is one of the three major Damascene hospitals where mortar victims are usually treated. Dr. Isam al-Amine, the hospital’s General Director Manager, related that said hospital alone had received 38 civilian victims on Saturday. Six were already deceased, and many were in critical condition and possibly will not survive. One of these was a man estimated at age 50 who remained unidentified, since he had no identification with him. His critical condition was caused by shrapnel hitting his head. According to Dr. Rin al-Sadad, another victim in critical condition was a 17-year-old girl who was currently being operated. In her case, the shrapnel struck her belly. A nurse who works at the hospital’s very same intensive care department that I was visiting lost her entire family in a mortar attack two years ago.
When we proceeded to the emergency room, the department chief related that the amount of Saturday’s dead received by the hospital had already reached seven. From him I also learnt that the maimed from the Umayyin Square attack I had witnessed earlier were treated there, in addition to the victims of mortar strikes in the neighbourhood of Mezzeh. I also had the chance to talk to a lightly injured man by the name of Abid Shalku, whose 25-year-old friend was killed by the Umayyin Square bomb. Another friend of his survived but lost his two legs. He described the experience as “worse than a nightmare.” He praised the people of Damascus for their steadfastness and brotherliness, though, since two civilian cars drove them to the hospital, which our translator from the Ministry of Information underlined is not an uncommon phenomenon in Damascus.
As horrible as this situation might sound, it is an ordinary day in the life of the Syrian people. You could hear bombs falling somewhere in the city throughout the day, but the people in the street remain as kind as they are while trying to live with it. Fortunately for them, the securing of Douma is imminent, and with it the rain of bombs will finally halt. The mainstream media, along with their allies in the civil society such as the UN and UNICEF, don’t seem to share this hopefulness, however. Acting as arms of NATO foreign policy as the often tend to do, they largely ignored the indiscriminate mortars raining down on Damascus during the last couple of weeks. Instead, they held up their ill habits of solely relying on compromised jihadi-affiliated sources to propagandise the hypocritical one-sided view of the SAA killing its own people to secure the grip of the bloodthirsty “regime,” ignoring the fact that a way higher percentage of Syrians support President Assad than Americans do Trump because, not despite, the government’s battle against a foreign-backed proxy war that was forced on the people of Syria by NATO, Turkey and some Gulf States since the very first days of the uprisings, and actually even before that.
The Washington Post, New York Times and CNN went as far as ignoring the issue altogether, while the BBC only mentioned the fact that, according to Syrian state media, government air strikes on Douma have restarted in “retaliation for the shelling of nearby government-held areas,” of course burying it under a headline condemning the SAA’s air strikes. If I can make it to Damascus to report upon the ignored shelling, corporate and state media reporters sure as hell could get out of their lazy chairs and come to interview the victims. I can attest to the fact that, contrary to difficult-to-access rebel-held areas, journalists are free to do so in Damascus.
The coverage of Eastern Ghouta reminds one of the mass media’s reportage of the Battle of Aleppo in 2016, in which its integrity sunk to a devastating new low. There, the mass media completely went dark on the documented fact that US- and Saudi-backed militants before the city’s unification had killed 10.750 people, 40% of whom were children and women, in their systematic bombing of the western part of the city, all the while overflooding the news with now largely discredited claims made by sources under control of the jihadis. As Damascus has been shelled about as frequently as Aleppo throughout the war, the amount of people killed in the indiscriminate targeting of Damascene civilians throughout the war must number in the thousands as well.
In Damascus, two horrible sounds can be heard interchangeably. One is the sound of explosions here in the city centre; the other is the sound of Syrian and Russian government planes flying over to go bomb Douma, which, make no mistake about it, they are doing intensively at the moment. The question remains, what do civilians from Eastern Ghouta think about this? It’s their opinion that is most important here, don’t you think?
To be continued…
Bas Spliet is a 22-year-old student Arabic studies at the University of Ghent in Belgium, where he previously obtained his bachelor’s degree in History. His journalistic work can be found at https://scrutinisedminds.com/ and he can be reached at [email protected].