Syrian activists are paying tribute to a boy who lost his eye in a regime bombing, compelling the world to stand with civilians under siege. Mat Nashed in Istanbul and Omar AlKhateeb in besieged Eastern Ghouta report.
When Moyad Haifee arrived at the blast site, a motorcycle was burning next to a pile of dead bodies buried beneath the rubble. The Syrian regime had just struck a marketplace in besieged Eastern Ghouta, killing scores of civilians in the Damascene suburb on October 29.
Among the dead was a woman with her skull cracked open. Haifee was about to leave her body in the debris to look for survivors, until he heard a baby crying from underneath her. When he turned over the corpse, he found two-month old Kareem Abdullah covered in dust and bleeding from his head.
"The injury to his head was very severe," Haifee, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer organization that saves people from the rubble, told DW in Eastern Ghouta. "It's a miracle he survived."
Kareem's father, who goes by the name Abu Mohammad (meaning "father of Mohammad"), thought the same thing. When his son was rushed to the hospital to undergo an operation, he prayed for his son to be spared while grieving the loss of his wife. Three days later, Kareem was released from the hospital, though forever blind in his left eye.
He could still suffer the same fate as his mother. Just 10 days after the attack on the marketplace, the house Kareem was staying in was hit by another regime bomb. And while he survived unscathed, both attacks are a harrowing reminder of the agony children face in the Syrian war.
The devastating situation in Eastern Ghouta has compelled Syrian activists, and those who empathize with their cause, to post portraits of themselves over social media covering their left eye. DW spoke with several of them, who hope that their tribute to Kareem can provoke a global outcry.
Starving to death
Mohammad Abdullah, a Syrian who works for the pro-opposition advocacy group the Syrian Campaign, wants Kareem's story to compel people to pressure their governments to end the siege.
"Unfortunately, people think that the war in Syria has ended because IS was defeated," said Abdullah. "But we still have at least 393,000 civilians besieged in Eastern Ghouta."
The situation in the district deteriorated rapidly after it was included in one of four de-escalation zones, which were brokered by Turkey, Iran and Russia in Astana on September 15, 2016. In the past, civilians could at least obtain minimum supplies from a web of underground tunnels, though they were often extorted by competing rebel groups who controlled them. But the regime managed to close these tunnels in February 2017.
With practically no access to food or aid, children are paying the heaviest price. Those under the age of five are suffering from the highest rate of malnutrition compared to any other region in Syria since the start of the war. The number has skyrocketed from 2.1 percent at the beginning of this year to 11.9 percent in November, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). That's less surprising when considering that bread — the staple food for many Syrians — is at least 20 times more expensive in Eastern Ghouta than in neighboring Damascus.
"Assad has permission from the West to continue committing crimes against the Syrian people," Abdullah told DW. "This campaign for Kareem is important [to us] because we want the world to see what's still happening in Syria."
Eastern Ghouta's medical infrastructure is also completely ravaged. In October, there were only 107 medical professionals left to treat hundreds of thousands of ailing people. Despite the crisis, the Syrian regime has prohibited the evacuation of nearly 500 civilians who need urgent assistance as identified by the UN. More than 100 of them are children.
Ali Al Cheikh Haidar, a Syrian activist living in France, stresses that parents of sick children face an impossible choice even if they can vacate. "There have been cases where the government has arrested the parents of sick children after they were permitted into Damascus," he said, over the phone.
Haidar cited the case of 4-year-old boy Musa'ab Abdulnafe, who was evacuated in May after showing symptoms of polio. Three months later, authorities arrested his father when he went to apply for an ID for his sick child.
Syrian civil society groups have also accused the UN of helping regime maintain its siege on civilians. Last year, the Syria Campaign released a 54-page report revealing that the Assad regime was threatening to revoke UN visas if staff members didn't abide by government protocol. The UN's top priority, the report stated, was cooperating with the Syrian regime, resulting in the provision of billions of dollars worth of aid to one side of the conflict.
The lack of neutrality may have emboldened the Syrian regime, which has never risked consequences for withholding aid from besieged areas. Haidar hopes that collective tribute for Kareem can expose the UN's controversial role in Syria. The money that millions of taxpayers give to the UN, he says, should be used to protect all civilians, regardless of who they support in the conflict.
"Kareem lost his mother and his eye. He has almost nothing left," said Haidar. "We foremost want people to remember what civilians are going through in Eastern Ghouta. [Syrians] want the world to talk and tweet about it. We want them to pressure their governments to do something."