Some 400,000 civilians besieged in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region face “complete catastrophe,” as aid deliveries are blocked and hundreds of people are in urgent need of medical evacuation, the UN warned on Thursday.
Seven people had already died because they were not evacuated, and 29 more were at imminent risk, including 18 children, UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland told reporters in Geneva after a regular meeting of the UN humanitarian taskforce on Syria.
“Around 400 men, women, children... need to be evacuated now,” Egeland said, adding that 29 of them, including 18 children “will die if they are not evacuated.”
As of now, “we have confirmation of seven patients dead because they were not evacuated, some of them children,” he said.
"“A very bleak report was delivered from us on the UN side. I feel as if we are now returning to some of the bleakest days of this conflict again,” Egeland said. “The fears are that we are now returning with civilians in crossfire in too many provinces at the same time.”
“Nowhere is it as bad as in Eastern Ghouta,” he said.
The Eastern Ghouta region, near the capital Damascus, is one of the last strongholds of rebels fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Egeland said the region was now "the epicenter of suffering" in the war-ravaged country, with some 400,000 civilians stuck in a dozen besieged towns and villages.
"Since September, it has been completely sealed off," he said, pointing out that UN aid convoys, which would be the only lifeline, have not been given permission to enter the enclave.
"We cannot continue like that. If we get in only a fraction of what is needed, it would be a complete catastrophe," he said.
UN staff last week entered the area for a few hours and assessed that there are now "a growing number of acutely malnourished children," meaning they are "very close to dying", Egeland said.
He said many were babies whose mothers had been too malnourished themselves to breastfeed.
He pointed out that since May, efforts to carry out desperately needed medical evacuations from the area have largely failed, with only about a dozen patients evacuated to date.
This has created a situation where hundreds of civilians, most of them women and children, need to be evacuated.
They are currently languishing "in clinics, in basements, in makeshift hospitals inside the Eastern Ghouta besieged towns and villages," Egeland said.
"They range from acutely malnourished children ... to severely wounded civilians, children, women, men. We really cannot understand that they can't be evacuated," he added.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, before spiraling into a complex, multi-front war that drew in international forces and jihadists.