After months of pleading and negotiations, medical evacuations have begun from the besieged region of eastern Ghouta, one of the last rebel-held enclaves in Syria.
As Patrick Wintour of the Guardian reports, four patients were taken from Ghouta to hospitals in Damascus on Wednesday. They are the first of 29 critically ill people who have been approved for evacuation; among the 29 are 18 children and four women suffering from life-threatening conditions like heart disease and kidney failure.
The evacuations are the result of negotiations between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the rebel group Jaish al-Islam, which agreed to release 29 detainees in exchange for the transport of the 29 most-critical patients, according to Tom Miles and Ellen Francis of Reuters. The deal was brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and came to fruition two months after the United Nations pushed the Syrian government to permit the evacuation of patients in dire need of medical care. Aid and advocacy groups have been voicing concerns about the situation in Ghouta since March of this year, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
The remaining patients will be transported out of Ghouta over the next few days, SAMS reports. But a six-month-old baby who was number 18 on the list of patients died while negotiations were underway, report Euan McKirdy, Angela Dewan and Sarah Sirgany of CNN.
In its statement, SAMS said that the 29 evacuees represent “just a small fraction” of 641 critically ill people in need of immediate medical attention.
Eastern Ghouta, which is home to some 400,000 people, was first besieged by Assad’s government in 2013. Over the years, residents have endured continuous bombardment and a deadly sarin gas attack. The area has been designated a “de-escalation zone” by Russia, Turkey and Iran, but the fighting between rebels and government forces has not stopped.
In fact, according to Miles and Francis of Reuters, residents say that the government has tightened its hold on eastern Ghouta in recent months, “in what they called a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war.” The government denies these allegations, but UNICEF has found that 11.9 percent of children in eastern Ghouta are acutely malnourished, the highest rate recorded since the start of the civil war.
The siege has also led to an urgent shortage of medical supplies. “Medical workers in the area have constantly shared their vast and urgent medical needs, including serums, anesthesia, surgical items, dialysis supplies, antibiotics, vaccines, and baby formula, tuberculosis medicine, equipment and supplies for lab tests, cesarean section kits, chronic diseases medicines and many others,” SAMS writes in its statement. “Unfortunately, their requests have been repeatedly ignored, or needed medical supplies have been removed from convoys.”
Ahmed Mounir, Syria’s deputy reconciliation minister, said on state television that the number of people involved in the exchange between the government and Jaish al-Islam could increase. The negotiations represent “a crucial first step,” according to SAMS, but “the humanitarian needs in the area are extremely critical.”