A 46-truck aid convoy – some vehicles stripped of desperately needed medical kits – brought supplies to the besieged rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Monday.
Sajjad Malik, the U.N. refugee agency representative in Syria, said the convoy left after nearly nine hours.
Two activists said the convoy and the UN delegation had to pull out before unloading everything. They said nine trucks were still loaded. “We delivered as much as we could amidst shelling. Civilians are caught in a tragic situation,” Malik said in a tweet.
It’s the first time humanitarian aid has been able to enter the enclave since the Syrian regime launched a devastating offensive more than two weeks ago.
“Many medical supplies were not allowed – this is mainly trauma kits – and as a result there will be some trucks, big trucks, that will only be partially full, ” Linda Tom, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Syria (OCHA), told CNN.
Trauma kits usually include medical supplies such as blood, clotting agents and bandages. While it is not unusual for such kits to be removed from aid convoys, it is nonetheless devastating for the estimated 1,000 people in Eastern Ghouta needing immediate medical attention.
“These medical supplies were not allowed to be loaded at the last minute this morning,” Tom said of the Syrian regime’s security inspection, adding that the entire shipment is intended for 70,000 people in Douma, an area north of the enclave.
The convoy includes 5,500 food parcels for more than 27,500 people, said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). One parcel is expected to last a family of five for a month.
Members of OCHA, who were already en route to Eastern Ghouta, were also stopped by Syrian officials from continuing their journey, according to Tom.
The convoy included other UN agencies, in addition to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, which continued the journey.
Tom called on the Syrian government to allow OCHA officials to bring in “badly needed” medical supplies on Thursday, when more aid is due to enter the area on the outskirts of Damascus.
Major turning point in fight for Eastern Ghouta
The aid convoy comes as the regime on Sunday took control of several villages inside Eastern Ghouta, marking a major turning point in the offensive which has now entered its third week.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the last major rebel-held enclaves in the country, which has been ravaged by war for almost seven years.
According to Syrian state-run news agency SANA, regime forces gained control of villages on the eastern side of the area, which it said were controlled by Al-Nusra Front, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
It also said that the rebel group had fired over 300 mortar shells and rockets on neighboring Damascus, killing and injuring scores of civilians.
It is the first time the regime has announced territory control of Eastern Ghouta since launching an offensive on the rebel-held area on February 18.
Ceasefire falls on deaf ears as violence escalates
The aid convoy is believed to have entered Eastern Ghouta via the Wafideen crossing, an area designated as a safe passage for evacuation and aid delivery during a daily five-hour humanitarian pause ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.
Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and its intervention during the long civil war – with troops and weaponry – has helped tilt the balance in the Syrian regime’s favor.
Russia declared its own “humanitarian pause” in fighting in Syria last week, after the UN Security Council had passed its resolution for a cease fire. But neither the UN’s order, nor Russia’s, produced a respite for people on the ground.
In the week since the UN’s ceasefire resolution, not only had the violence failed to stop, it has actually escalated, according to Panos Moumtzis, UN Regional Coordinator for the Syria Crisis.
“Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed,” Moumtzis said in a statement on Sunday. “This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Thousands of residents have now fled their homes in Eastern Ghouta and headed westward where the fighting is less severe, civilians inside the suburb told CNN on Sunday.
“The situation on the ground is catastrophic,” surgeon Hamza Hassan, based in Irbin in Eastern Ghouta, told CNN via WhatsApp. “There is massive internal displacement of 30,000 people from (the areas of) Beit Sawa, Otaya, the Douma villages,” he said.
Why Eastern Ghouta?
Almost 600 people are believed to have been killed and over 2,000 injured since Syrian government forces launched an air and ground offensive on Eastern Ghouta on February 18, according to the statement.
Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) put the civilian death toll even higher Saturday, reporting that 770 had been killed and more than 4,000 wounded just between February 18 and February 27. At the same time, ground-based strikes and mortar shelling from Eastern Ghouta have killed and injured scores of civilians in neighboring Damascus.
The main rebel units actively holding territory in Eastern Ghouta are the Islamist Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al Rahman, which have taken part in peace negotiations in the past. According to activists, there are small pockets of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate, still in the area.
Observers fear the area could face a fate similar to that which befell eastern Aleppo, which was all but destroyed in a government offensive in December 2016.
The regime’s capture of that city marked a turning point in the war, with President Assad taking back control of all four major cities in the country with the help of Russia.
Russia’s intervention in 2015 with troops and weaponry has helped tilt the balance in Assad’s favor, making the push for Eastern Ghouta more intense than ever.
CNN’s Sheena McKenzie, Sarah El Sirgany, Samantha Beech, Dakin Andone, Ghazi Balki, Mohammed Tawfeef and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.