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As Bombing Goes On In Syria, Voices From Ghouta: 'I Smell The Ash. I See The Bloods'


We begin this hour in Syria. Eastern Ghouta is a suburban area just half an hour by car from the capital, Damascus. It used to be a green place full of parks, trees and creeks - not today. Dr. Hamza Hasan has worked in Ghouta's hospitals for the last six years.

HAMZA HASAN: (Through interpreter) Spring in Eastern Ghouta is very, very beautiful. Honestly I wish any journalist would go to Ghouta and ask people, what's spring like now? I think 90 or 95 percent would say, there there's no such thing as spring because they're in basements, sitting underground, sitting in holes.

SHAPIRO: The Syrian government with the aid of Russia has been shelling Eastern Ghouta for months, and it's been especially relentless in the last two weeks. They're retaliating against rebels based in the area who have been attacking Damascus. We spoke with a handful of people who live in Eastern Ghouta and asked them to describe what life has been like under siege.

HIBA ALJAZZAR: The situation in Eastern Ghouta - very, very bad. It is difficult how we'd describe it.

SHAPIRO: That's the sound of bombing behind 24-year-old Hiba Aljazzar, a laboratory analyst. She had to cancel her wedding. The house she was planning to get married in has been destroyed.

ALJAZZAR: I want to live with my family in my house safely. I feel suffocated. Smell of this fill my chest. For last seven days, I lost my uncle. He is bleeding here in basement, and then he die.

FIRAS ABDULLAH: What I see usually after shelling is the debris. I smell the ash, and I see the bloods. My name is Firas Abdullah. I am a Syrian freelance photojournalist. I am from Douma city, one of the cities of Eastern Ghouta. And I am 24 years old. Our children, our families have been underground for about two weeks so far. Some families haven't seen the sun for five days.

SHAPIRO: Students try to focus on their studies while bombs are falling around them. Mahmoud Bwedani is 20 years old, studying computer science.

MAHMOUD BWEDANI: When the shelling and bombardment gets heavy, we have nothing on our minds except that we are all safe. We don't think about anything else. But when the situation settles down even for a little bit, we get back to thinking about our studies, thinking about the future. So this situation made me think that our minds are wandering between two separate lives.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this week, a U.N. aid convoy reached Eastern Ghouta, but then the shelling started again, and Bwedani says the aid workers left, taking the food and other supplies with them.

BWEDANI: They got out of the city before unloading all of the cars. I mean, isn't it the United Nations' job to stop the shelling on civilians or to escape the area when the shelling comes?

SHAPIRO: These last two weeks have been especially difficult for the children. Maram is an English teacher and mother of two. She asked us to only use her first name out of fear that her family could be targeted. Her kids are 2 years old and 8 months old. The baby is teething. She described emerging from the underground shelter for the first time in five days.

MARAM: When we get out, we were surprised. We were shocked. Whole buildings were on the ground - especially when you try to imagine there were people under those buildings.

SHAPIRO: She went to the house to get some toys to keep the children entertained.

MARAM: I try to play with them, to sing, to do anything to make them forget.

SHAPIRO: To make them forget that they are in the middle of a war. When the children get scared, she sings them a lullaby she was raised with, a song by the Lebanese singer Fairuz called "Yalla Tnam" - go to sleep.


FAIRUZ: (Singing in Arabic).

SHAPIRO: We're joined now by Linda Tom, a U.N. spokesperson in Damascus. Welcome to the program.

LINDA TOM: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You just heard that account from the 20-year-old computer science student Mahmoud Bwedani about the aid convoy leaving before food and other supplies were all distributed. Does that match your understanding of what happened?

TOM: That is what happened. But what I would say to him is we can't stop the shelling either. What happened was on Monday, after a very, very long wait, the U.N. and partners were finally able to access Douma with humanitarian assistance. And on the day that we were meant to go in, we actually were contacted by the government of Syria, and some of the health supplies - many of the health supplies that were supposed to bring in were not allowed.

So three of the trucks were only able to go in half-full. This was of a total of 46 trucks that we were meant to bring in. As soon as we went in, not long afterwards, the fighting resumed. As a result, about 10 trucks were not able to be offloaded, and four trucks were partially offloaded. What that meant was that half the supplies for those 27,500 people were not offloaded.

SHAPIRO: What did the aid workers in that convoy tell you they saw in Douma in Eastern Ghouta?

TOM: Well, the team said that they saw a desperate situation for people who have endured months of lack of access to humanitarian aid. The food for civilians was in short supply or prohibitively expensive and that there was a high rate of acute malnutrition among children. They met families who said that they had been living underground for weeks and that some basements are now home to almost 200 people.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any hope of getting back in with aid soon?

TOM: We're absolutely going to be trying again. I mean, we can't leave this like this. We've been trying to reach East Ghouta for weeks, for months. We continue to keep trying because the needs are so desperate inside.

SHAPIRO: We've been describing a siege that's lasted two weeks, but clearly the situation has been dire for much longer than that. Can you give us some context?

TOM: Yeah, sure. East Ghouta, which is an area where we estimate that there are 400,000 people, has been completely besieged, and there are some areas of East Ghouta that have been besieged for years. And when we talk about besiegement, what that means is that people cannot go in and out. People are not able to have access to food, to basic medicines. They're - if they're sick, they are not able to go out even for medical treatment.

SHAPIRO: And so what has changed in these past two weeks that's made it so much worse?

TOM: Well, a couple of things. The fighting has gotten much, much worse. Since mid-February, we estimate about 700 people have been killed, and over 3,000 people have been injured. But those estimates may not even be correct. They may be well under what is actually happening.

SHAPIRO: We're now coming up on seven years of war in Syria. And in that time, people have heard many terrible stories of people under siege. Is there anything specific about the situation in East Ghouta right now that distinguishes it from the other humanitarian catastrophes that have unfolded across the country?

TOM: Well, I think that the situation here is particularly serious and particularly dire for many reasons. East Ghouta's really not very far from Damascus. So we have warehouses full of humanitarian assistance that we can bring in if we were given the opportunity to do so. The siege is tightening. And the longer that the siege lasts, the worse the situation is for the people inside. I talked earlier about people who are waiting to be medically evacuated. Some of those people - and some of them are children - died while waiting to be medically evacuated.

SHAPIRO: Linda Tom, thank you for speaking with us today.

TOM: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: She's a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and we reached her on Skype in Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.