As it enters its eighth year, the war in Syria continues to fuel the fear, trauma and cultural disintegration of its people. War has consumed various cities for various reasons, the scale of brutality defying any reason at all. Here is a snapshot of some of the worst hit regions; what they were and what they have become.
Eastern Ghouta, or Al Gutah, is made up of around 14 towns. It sits on a fertile belt that lies beside the Barada River, about 15 kilometres east of Syria’s capital, Damascus. Its surrounding farmlands and orchards have been an important source of grains, legumes and vegetables for Syrians for thousands of years.
Right now, thousands of families in Eastern Ghouta fear for their lives. The UN estimates that some 400,000 people remain trapped in the enclave. Local aid workers say families are now living in a network of underground basements and shelters to escape the constant bombardment.
Fierce bombing and shelling continue to destroy homes, schools and hospitals in what is currently Syria’s bloodiest battlefield. In some parts of eastern Ghouta the destruction is now even greater than at the height of the Aleppo crisis in 2016, but it has attracted only a fraction of the global outrage.
While humanitarian efforts are severely hampered, Save the Children’s partners on the ground have been able to distribute winter kits to several hundred families through the coldest months and are positioned to distribute much needed food and hygiene kits as soon as it is safe to do so.
A street seller among the destruction in Eastern Ghouta. Photo: Syria Relief
Population: 1.5 million
The city of Idlib (within Idlib province) sits about 500 metres above sea level in the northwest of Syria, about 40 kilometres from the Turkish border. It has historically been home to a thriving textile trade, renowned for its prolific production of cotton, olives and tomatoes.
Idlib has characterised the complexity of the civil war throughout the past seven years. At times a destination for people forced to flee their homes from other warzones but more often a scene of devastating conflict. Today, a fluctuating population is made up of thousands who have fled from conflict elsewhere in Syria only to have to take shelter again.
The conditions in camps for displaced families have been freezing, under-resourced and over-crowded. In recent months, the magnitude of migration has continued to overwhelm the region and increase the suffering for those forced from their homes.
Organisations including Violet, Shafak and Syria Relief, with support from Save the Children, have been providing blankets, food baskets, medical help and psychosocial support to children and their families taking refuge in Idlib.
A camp for displaced families in North West Idlib. Photo: Save the Children
About 160 kilometres north of Damascus lies the third largest city in Syria. In 2008, it was described by Lonely Planet as “a wonderful place to kick back for a couple of days," featuring “myriad leafy parks and gardens, sprawling al fresco coffee shops, outdoor corn-on-the-cob stands and restored souq (markets) where artisans still work.”
Now, the city of Homs is considered the first ‘capital of the revolution,’ after protests erupted there in March 2011. Homs residents bore the brunt of the initial violent conflicts, with thousands killed and survivors left without access to food or medicine.
In December last year, fifty percent of communities living in Homs reported having insufficient water to meet household needs and many said that drinking water from the primary water source made people sick.
Northern Homs continues to experience regular bombardment. Convoys have rarely been able to reach the nearly 200,000 people in need of humanitarian aid. Some aid agencies in the area fear that northern Homs may be the next area to come under siege in the coming months.
Population: 1.6 million
One of the oldest cities in the world, Aleppo was Syria’s largest before the fighting began. Records suggest the city’s site has been inhabited since at least 5000 BC. More recently, Aleppo was once renowned as a vibrant world city rich with medieval architecture, magnificent mosques, fine silks, music and food.
In 2012 it became a key battleground in the Syrian civil war, the fighting lasting four years until an intense assault brought an end to the conflict towards the end of 2016.
Civilians faced aerial bombardment of unprecedented scale and intensity. Tens of thousands of families fled from their homes. The once grand old city has been literally reduced to rubble, its population decimated, its spirit broken.
Destruction on the streets of eastern Aleppo Photo: Save the Children
Nestled alongside the mighty Euphrates River, Raqqa was a city few in the West would have heard much about before the war. In the early 2000s, the travel guide ‘Footprints’ noted “the bustling main street is crammed with gold and textile shops and, in the cool of the evening, the whole place thrums with window-shopping families". The fountain in Naim Square – or Paradise Square – used to be a place where children would come to cool down on hot summer days.
When militants took control of the city in 2014 it became a place of unimaginable horror. The square became the site for public beheadings, children forced to watch the severed ‘trophies’ being impaled on fence posts.
The military assault that would finally drive the extremists from their stronghold was unforgiving and absolute. It has left the city a wasteland of ruin, littered with unexploded mortars and booby traps. Hundreds of thousands have left their homes in Raqqa in search of hope but for those who remain, the chance of rebuilding homes and resuming life as it was seems an impossible dream.
Saeed*, three, inside an abandoned petrol station where he and his family now live in Raqqa. Photo: Save the Children
It’s hard to believe the fighting in Syria has endured for so long – so much bloodshed and destruction, and still today as violent and ruthless as ever.
All parties to the conflict have shown an indiscriminate disregard for civilian lives and international law – schools have been targeted, children used as shields.
We are working with partners in the worst hit regions to provide whatever humanitarian assistance we can. We’re also calling on world leaders to protect children and hold perpetrators of war crimes to account. You can take a stand with us.
Header image: Municipal building on fire in Douma, Eastern Ghouta. Photo: Syria Relief