It was among the bloodiest days of Syria’s war. In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, doctors worked around the clock. Families huddled across basements and bedrooms, sticking close together so they didn’t die alone.
Monitoring groups and rescue workers said at least 200 people had been killed in a two-day bombardment, with Syrian government warplanes launching strikes on densely populated areas as helicopters dropped barrels packed with shrapnel and crude explosives.
“There have been many massacres,” said Huda Kyayati, a relief worker with the Syrian nonprofit group Women Now for Development. “I cannot handle the idea of going down to the basement because I cannot imagine what it would mean to be bombed and die under the rubble.”
Across much of Syria, this is no longer a civil war. As the conflict escalates, international powers, including the United States, Russia, Turkey and Iran, are scrambling for influence, clashing in the skies and on the ground. But in Eastern Ghouta, the final pocket of rebel territory around Damascus, it is just the Syrian government that is clashing with the country’s armed opposition.
Trapped in the middle are as many as 400,000 people, most of them civilians.
Syrian troops laid siege to Eastern Ghouta in April 2013, and the flow of goods has been restricted ever since, sending prices soaring and causing dozens of deaths related to a lack of essentials.
Civilians trapped under the bombs Tuesday were severely weakened from lack of food and clean water. According to Reach, a nonprofit organization tracking humanitarian conditions in the enclave, the price of bread has risen to 1,500 Syrian pounds. A few miles away, in parts of the Syrian capital controlled by the government, the cost is less than 100.
As the pace of death accelerates in Eastern Ghouta, so do preparations. Pathologists and gravediggers in the enclave said before the violence accelerated that they had 20 to 50 graves on standby at any given time. On Tuesday, they said that was not enough.
“We are overwhelmed. We are throwing body parts in mass graves. It’s all we can do,” said one man, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from the government in the event that it took full control of the area.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert blasted the Syrian government’s “siege and starve tactics” and called for a cessation of hostilities so humanitarian aid can be delivered and civilians evacuated.
Unlike previous government attacks on the area, Tuesday’s bombardment did not target any specific neighborhood, according to the White Helmets.
As warplanes circled in the sky past midnight Tuesday, another volunteer for a Syrian nonprofit, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fears for his family’s safety, said he had still not dared to take his children to the basement. “We might die here, but at least it won’t be the darkness,” he said.