The current military offensive in Syria not only affects the inhabitants of the Eastern Ghouta region but also those of neighbouring Damascus. The shelling of the capital city continues. The Christian district at the eastern edge of the old city has also been under fire. In an interview with Dr Andrzej Halemba, the head of the Middle East section of the worldwide pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Tobias Lehner discusses why the warring parties are condoning the death of civilians, why Islamist terror is on the rise again and what kind of aid the civilian population needs at this moment.
Tobias Lehner: What do you know about the situation in Eastern Ghouta?
Dr Andrzej Halemba: We from ACN maintain very good and close contact with a large number of bishops in Damascus. One of them is the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic church, Patriarch Joseph Absi. Caritas Syria is on site and keeping us informed.
The people in Eastern Ghouta are trapped. Several thousands of people! They have practically no access to food. They have no medical care. Many residents have been wounded and are in need of an operation. There are no humanitarian corridors allowing them to escape. This may be because the rebels consider the civilian population “human shields”. And the government fears that not only civilian refugees will flee to Damascus, but also suicide bombers, who would bring the terror even further into the city. Fear and terror reigns everywhere.
And all that practically before the gates of the capital city of Syria with its more than one million inhabitants…
Eastern Ghouta is only about four kilometres from the city centre. From here Rebel troops can look out over the city of Damascus from there. Among them are also troops that are close to al-Qaeda. Several units of the “Islamic State” still remain in the southern districts of Damascus. Therefore, it is important not only to talk about the actions of the government troops, but also the fact that the Islamists have set their sights on the capital city: with terrorist attacks on the inside, mortar attacks from the outside. The Christian district of Bab Tuma, which is located on the eastern edge of the old city, has also been severely hit. The warring parties know that the moment children die, young people are killed, families are destroyed and houses are demolished, it draws the attention of the world to them. It is part of their strategy. This is why the Christian district is also one of the areas under attack.
Can you describe the situation there in more detail?
The situation is dire. The mortar attacks continue unabated. The Christians are scared to death. I recently spoke with a religious sister. She told me that she and her fellow sisters are not even able to leave the city centre anymore to go to the districts in which many Christians and refugees from Eastern Ghouta have found shelter. It is too dangerous. Convoys that were supposed to carry humanitarian aid into Damascus have been stopped. It is a terrible situation!
You said that there were also Islamist units among the rebel groups. The European media is focusing primarily on the brutal tactics of the government troops. Is this then not the whole truth?
Truth is always the first casualty in times of war. Both sides are in the wrong. Both sides commit crimes. Both sides are guilty. Both sides have caused countless casualties. In the now seven years of war in Syria, more than one million people have been killed or wounded. And these are wounds not only of the body, but also of the soul. So many people are traumatised. It will take decades to heal these wounds. And all warring parties bear responsibility for this!
Let us talk about the supply situation. The negotiated ceasefire was fragile that it was at first impossible to get relief supplies to the besieged inhabitants. This was finally possible early this week. What do you know about this?
It was imperative to get food and medical aid to the inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta immediately. However, it is also important to remember the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who have sought refuge in Damascus. Many have lost family members, many were severely wounded during the attacks. All of them have lost their future. This is why it is important for ACN to help these internally displaced persons. We want to offer them both pastoral as well as financial aid so that they can be cared for in a hospital setting, for example. We have to show these sorely afflicted people our love!
What kind of aid is ACN planning to offer Damascus?
We have been working in this region for a long time. Since war broke out, we have donated over 21 million euros in emergency aid. We are currently helping Christian families with food donations, clothing and medicine. In addition, we are trying to set up pastoral and therapeutic care for those who are traumatised. This is very important. We are supporting the work of the religious orders – because they are vital relief workers. We are looking for places where refugee families can stay. A top priority in Damascus is helping people who have lost a family member or who have been wounded and are in need of an operation. Even in a city like Damascus there are areas that are difficult to gain access to or that have been neglected. We have to take care of the people there. We encourage our project partners to help all people who come to them.
In many ways, the current situation in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus resembles the battles for control over Aleppo in 2016. From Aleppo we heard that the churches were often the only place those in need could turn to – for Christians, but also large numbers of Muslims. Is this also the case in Damascus?
As a Christian pastoral charity, ACN takes care of anyone who has fallen victim to this war and who is in need. To achieve this, we are also working closely together with other organisations in Damascus. This means that we can start with existing networks and build from there. The aid we provide is for everyone, no one is excluded. This of course also includes individual Muslims; after all, they are suffering just as much from the war as the Christians. Christian charity knows no borders and is not interested in religious affiliation. The image of Jesus Christ is reflected in the face of each and every suffering person. And this maltreated face is looking back at us from the people in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus – and is asking for our response to this unspeakable suffering!