23 APRIL 2018, EASTERN GHOUTA — The capture of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian regime has forced Roia to close the Maharat ICT Academy and cease its operation of the Emergency Medical System (EMS).
What were the ICT Academy and EMS?
The Maharat ICT Academy was opened in 2016 and had been training young Syrian women and men in a range of ICT skills designed to provide a source of sustainable income.
The Academy focused on bringing students to a point of self-sufficiency and emphasised online freelancing as a means to secure work. Tuition included programming, web-development, English language and entrepreneurships skills.
The Emergency Medical System was launched in September 2012 to address the lack of medical coordination in Eastern Ghouta. EMS combined trained dispatchers in a fully equipped centre with a secure and independent telecommunications network and served as Eastern Ghouta’s “911 service” during the conflict.
The region’s White Helmets and other medical workers came to rely on EMS in order to quickly identify and respond to the numerous attacks on civilians that have taken place since the conflict started.
What happened before the offensive?
Eastern Ghouta had been under the control of forces opposed to Bashar Al-Asaad and the Syrian regime since the early days of the conflict and had been in a state of near total besiegement for 5 years.
Siege against civilians is a form of collective punishment and a recognised war crime. The regime prevented humanitarian aid, food and medical supplies from entering Eastern Ghouta. Additionally, the regime has routinely carried out indiscriminate bombing against civilians. As a result of these actions the civilian population has suffered terribly.
Poverty, malnutrition and suffering from preventable illnesses and wounds has been widespread, which is why programs such as the Maharat ICT Academy and EMS were so important to the civilian population of Eastern Ghouta.
What happened during the offensive?
Between February and April 2018, the regime was successful in capturing Eastern Ghouta and has since forced the closure of both the ICT Academy and EMS.
Both in the run-up to the offensive and during the offensive proper, the regime stepped up attacks against the besieged population. In addition to intensive shelling and aerial bombardment, reports indicate that chemical weapons were used by the regime on several occasions.
During this period, EMS played a vital role in coordinating the humanitarian crisis and ensuring that those in need of medical attention were treated as efficiently as possible. Roia’s field teams worked around the clock, even when key infrastructure was damaged by shelling.
After weeks of fighting and consistent advances by the regime, opposition forces signed an agreement negotiating their surrender and retreat from Eastern Ghouta.
Roia was forced to abandon its projects in Eastern Ghouta with the capture of the area by the regime. The government of Bashar Al-Asaad has constantly mislabelled all humanitarian organisations working in opposition held-areas as terrorist groups.
Consequently, despite remaining strictly impartial, Roia is unable to continue working in the region. The regime maintains strict control over NGOs working under its control and this would compromise Roia’s commitment to humanitarian principles.
What happens next?
Eastern Ghouta remains in the grip of an acute humanitarian crisis despite the end of hostilities. Conservative UN assessments place up to 70,000 individuals in in dire need of humanitarian assistance, yet the regime is still preventing the UN from sending convoys of food and medical supplies.
Following years of siege and bombardment, it remains to be seen how the regime will respond to the needs crisis and replace the services formerly provided by NGOs like Roia.
As part of the agreement signed between the regime and opposition forces, civilians in Eastern Ghouta may choose to leave the region and head to Idlib, the last major population centre under the control of the opposition.
However, fearing reprisals from the regime, many civilians feel that they have no choice but to flee as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). With their lives at risk, the movement of these IDPs is arguably coercive and thus arguably amounts to another war crime. More than 150,000 civilians in Eastern Ghouta have fled for the north, while only between 100,000 to 140,000 have chosen to stay under the control of the regime.
Roia will continue to implement its humanitarian and development activities wherever it can in Syria.