The patients evacuated out of Ghouta are a fraction of those in need of urgent medical treatment
Syria's children will continue to suffer as long as Bashar Al Assad remains in power
The 130,000 children of Ghouta, the most vulnerable group in what is now perhaps the deadliest remaining pocket of the Syrian civil war, have been the worst victims of Bashar Al Assad’s homicidal campaign to subdue the rebel-held enclave. A nine-year-old child died earlier this month of tuberculosis, a disease that is eminently treatable. In September, a five-year-old died of acute herpetic encephalitis, even though the drug to save him was available just a short distance away.
Against this agonising backdrop, Mr Al Assad’s decision to allow the evacuation of a handful of critically ill children out of Ghouta constitutes, at best, a miserly concession motivated by callous political calculations rather than humanitarian reasons. It was part of a detainee-swap deal with the rebel group Jaish Al Islam; without such a deal, Mr Al Assad would gladly let Ghouta’s people perish, as he has for all these years. The evacuations that began on Tuesday evening are limited to a batch of 29 patients, among them 18 children and four women who suffer from heart disease, cancer and kidney failure caused by malnutrition. And of the 29 patients approved by Mr Al Assad, only four were allowed to leave on Tuesday.
Ghouta, situated in the suburbs of Damascus, has been a crucible of suffering for the past four years. In August, the regime dropped missiles loaded with sarin gas on the area, killing some 1,500 men, women and children. Mr Al Assad’s four-year-long siege of Ghouta, combined with his relentless airstrikes on its 400,000 inhabitants, has transformed the area into a derelict and barren wasteland.
The United Nations’ humanitarian advisor for Syria, Jan Egeland, spoke last week of his agency’s desperate attempts "every single week, for many months, to get medical evacuations out and food and other supplies in”. Mr Al Assad’s refusal to cooperate has meant the opportunity to save many children's lives with prompt medical intervention have been lost. As of last week, there were 494 people, including children with cancer, on the UN’s priority list for emergency medical evacuation out of Ghouta. “That number is going down,” Mr Egeland said, “not because we are evacuating people but because they are dying.”
As the Syrian American Medical Society, which is leading the evacuation efforts, has said, the people being allowed out are a “small fraction of the current number of 641 critical cases in need of urgent medical evacuation”. How long can the rest wait? There are only 107 doctors left in Ghouta and, thanks to Mr Al Assad’s siege, hospitals can’t replenish their vanishing medical supplies. Tuesday’s evacuations out of Ghouta represent a rare instance of good news. At the same time, the seemingly interminable tragedy of the area confirms that Syria’s suffering will not end as long as the man responsible for inflicting it retains the power of life and death over Syrians.
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