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Syrian Regime Blocks Aid Convoy and Shells Civilians Who Gathered to Receive It

A joint aid convoy idled for seven hours outside of the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya before Syrian soldiers turned it away. Minutes later, the town was shelled.
Photo via Local Council of Daraya

Omar's daughter is two months old, but he still hasn't met her. He lives in Daraya, a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus that's besieged by the Syrian regime. His wife and child live just a few kilometers to the west, in the neighboring rebel suburb of Moadamiya. The Syrian army cut the road between the two enclaves in January shortly before his daughter was born.

On Thursday, Omar eagerly awaited the arrival of an international aid convoy that was scheduled to bring medicine and baby formula into Daraya. The Syrian government agreed to the delivery, and it was organized by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.


It would have been the first convoy to reach Daraya since it was first besieged in 2012 — but the trucks didn't make it to the town.

According to the ICRC, it was turned away at the last checkpoint outside of Daraya. Just minutes after the convoy was sent back, the Local Council of Daraya — a committee that operates as the local government — reported that the Syrian army had shelled a group of civilians who'd gathered to receive the aid. A father and son were killed and five other civilians were injured, the council said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's regime had fired into the town.

After the shelling, Omar rushed to a nearby field hospital where the wounded were being treated.

"The people are now filled with frustration and anger," he told VICE News via messaging app. "To be honest, at this point we no longer trust the international community or the UN."

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Though it's just a 20-minute drive from the center of Damascus, Daraya is one of the most isolated places in Syria: it's been under siege for over four years, and it's one of the few areas where no aid convoys have ever been permitted to enter. According to residents interviewed by VICE News, people survive on meager meals of lentil and rice soup that are often fortified with weeds or grass. The water supply was cut off two years ago.


"Daraya is probably the place in Syria today where the greatest unmet needs caused by besiegement exist," UN senior advisor Jan Egeland told reporters on Thursday.

The aborted convoy didn't carry food beyond milk for infants, and aid workers characterized it as a confidence-building measure that would hopefully lead to future deliveries.

"The assessment mission is certainly a first step," Egeland said just hours before it failed.

Members of a crowd of people that had gathered in Daraya to receive the convoy on Thursday evening held up signs saying, "I can't eat medicine," and, "Medicine on an empty stomach doesn't help me."

The UN later reported that regime soldiers at the last checkpoint outside of Daraya began removing medical and nutritional items for children — everything except vaccines — from the convoy. Speaking to reporters in New York, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said that Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy for Syria, and Jacob el-Hillo, its humanitarian coordinator for the country, "made the decision not to go through because these key items were taken out" despite the fact that the regime had already authorized their delivery.

But less than an hour after the UN accused the Syrian regime of pilfering supplies, the UN and ICRC released a joint statement with no reference to the removal of items in the Daraya mission. The convoy was simply "refused entry," the statement said.


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Pawel Krzysiek, an ICRC spokesperson who was traveling with the convoy, also stressed that the convoy didn't turn back because certain items were removed. The convoy had waited for more than seven hours at the regime checkpoint outside of Daraya before being turned away, he said, noting that he didn't think the soldiers at the checkpoint had any intention of permitting the convoy into the besieged area.

This isn't the first time the UN has charged the Syrian authorities with taking supplies from aid convoys. In a March 30 briefing to the Security Council, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said that more than 80,000 medical treatments, including items to treat child malnutrition and medicine for bleeding after childbirth, had been removed from such convoys in just the first three months of 2016.

In a statement released on Thursday evening, el-Hillo, the humanitarian coordinator, described the situation in Daraya as dire.

"We were hoping that today's delivery of life saving assistance would have been a first step and lead to more aid being allowed in," he said. "We know the situation there is desperate."

Daraya has endured round after round of atrocities. Shortly before the siege was imposed in November 2012, nearly 500 residents were killed in just two and a half days in one of the most bloody massacres of the Syrian civil war. For most of the last four years, Daraya has been pounded from the air — locals say Assad's forces dropped more than 6,800 barrel bombs between January 2014 and February 2016, when a cessation of hostilities agreement was reached between the regime and some rebels groups. Over the course of the war, what was once a city of 80,000 people has dwindled to a ghost town of 8,000.


Muhammad Shihadeh, an English teacher who works with the Local Council, said that the failure of Thursday's aid convoy fits within the regime's pattern of behavior.

"I believe its revenge," he told VICE News via-messaging app. "The regime is trying to take revenge against the people by starving it, even as they allow aid to other places within Syria."

Krzysiek hopes the Red Cross will be able to return to Daraya soon and deliver much-needed supplies to the civilians stranded there.

"We are ready to come back," he said. "We wanted to get to them… We will not forget them, and we will keep trying no matter how difficult it is."

Samuel Oakford contributed to this report.

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro