AS THE SYRIAN regime continues to bombard rebel forces in Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, its opponents are shelling the Syrian capital in return. The Christian district at the eastern edge of the old city has come under fire. We spoke with Father Andrzej Halemba, who is in charge of Middle East projects for our organization, for an update on the situation.
What do you know about the situation in Eastern Ghouta?
Our organization is in close contact with many 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 surgery. There are no humanitarian corridors allowing them to escape. This may be because the rebels are using the civilian population as “human shields.” Plus, the government fears that suicide bombers will hide among civilians fleeing to Damascus, which would bring terror even deeper in to the city. Fear and terror reign everywhere.
Eastern Ghouta is only about 2.5 miles from the city center. Rebel troops have a clear view of Damascus. Among them are troops that are close to al-Qaeda. Several ISIS units remain active in the southern districts of Damascus. Therefore, it is important not only to talk about the actions of the government, but call attention to the fact that 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 been severely hit. The warring parties know that the moment children die, young people are killed, families are destroyed and houses are demolished, the world pays attention. It is part of the 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 have continued 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 center 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 fighters among the rebel groups. The Western media is focusing primarily on the brutal tactics of 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 traumatized. It will take decades to heal these wounds. And all warring parties bear responsibility for this!
Finally, earlier this week, it became possible for relief supplies to reach Eastern Ghouta. What can you tell us 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, while many were severely wounded during the attacks. All of them have lost their future. This is why it is important for us 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 our organization planning to offer people in Damascus?
We have been working in this region for a long time. Since war broke out, we have donated over $25M 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 traumatized. 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.
The current situation in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus resembles the battles for control over Aleppo in 2016. In that city, churches were often the only place those in need could turn to—Christians as well as large numbers of Muslims. Is this also the case in Damascus?
As a Christian pastoral charity, our organization 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 organizations 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. —Tobias Lehner