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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Demonstrators show support for Ghouta amidst feelings of hopelessness

Approximately 500 civilians killed in one week 

A Lebanese woman holds a placard during a protest in solidarity with residents of the Syrian capital's eastern suburb of Ghouta. Bilal Hussein / AP
A Lebanese woman holds a placard during a protest in solidarity with residents of the Syrian capital's eastern suburb of Ghouta. Bilal Hussein / AP

Demonstrators in Lebanon filled a square on Sunday to decry the violence that has gripped eastern Ghouta over the past week.

Despite the protesters' pleas, resignation reigned amongst the people that gathered in the small square in downtown Beirut in support of the ravaged suburb of Damascus. Many expected the carnage would continue.

“It’s to express solidarity,” said Ali Khedr, a 26-year-old photographer from the central Syrian city of Hama. “We all know that no matter what we do, it’s the same.”

Mr Khedr compared the demonstration to a funeral.

“You have to be there for the family,” he said. “This is what the people I’m talking to there are asking us to do.”

The Syrian government, with support from Russia, has carried out a week of intense air and artillery bombardment in eastern Ghouta, the collective name for a string of suburbs close to Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that approximately 500 civilians were killed in airstrikes in the last week.

The United Nations estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 people have been under siege in Ghouta since 2013, a situation that worsened last year when regime forces shut the main routes of entry for civilian goods.

The blockade sent food prices skyrocketing and created a shortage of medical supplies and basic care that has seen people die from treatable conditions.

Obaida, a Syrian man from the city of Homs who asked that his last name not be used, said he was in daily contact with his friends in Ghouta and that nothing had changed despite a UN security council vote on Saturday in support of a 30-day ceasefire.

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“They are still in the basements,” he said, referring to the makeshift shelters people have crowded into in order to escape the bombs. “We are just here to support them. We can’t do anything else. We are helpless.”

In better times, eastern Ghouta was home to as many as two million people. Its orchards and farms provided food to Damascus and its factories were known for furniture and handmade wooden goods.

The demonstration was largely a silent vigil, with chants against the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah - whose intervention in the war has been key to the government’s survival.

The protesters also called on other foreign actors, including the US, Russia and Turkey, to stop intervening in Syria.

“We all know that our voice does not affect the international community,” said a woman from the coastal Syrian city of Lattakia who asked that her name not be used.

“But we have to support the people in Ghouta who are dying,” she said, adding that she couldn't have imagined today's conflict when she joined demonstrators calling for democracy seven years ago.

“We didn’t think the whole world would be fighting in our country,” she said. “Even after a few years, we still had hope. Not that we would win, but at least to have a life in Syria. Now we have no hope.”

On Sunday, Humam Husari, a filmmaker in eastern Ghouta, said that the bombardment and clashes were continuing despite the UN vote.

“They tried testing the UN Security Council agreement this morning by going out, but the shelling forced them to go back to basements again,” Mr Husari said.

Rand, a 23-year-old student from Damascus who asked that her last name be withheld, said that she had been trying to keep in touch with friends in Ghouta but that the necessity of staying underground meant they often had no mobile phone service.

“We know that so far no one has died,” she said. “But we don’t think a 30-day period of calm is enough. We want an end to the war.”

“We know it’s not going to change anything,” said Ahmad Qusair, one of the organizers of the demonstration. It’s about getting out anger.”

“It’s symbolic,” agreed Nabil Al Halabi, a Lebanese human rights lawyer and activist.