DOUMA, SYRIA – It used to provide fresh food for the Syrian capital; now its hungry people are queuing for bread handouts from a truck.
For over a week now Syrian government flags have flown over Douma, the biggest town in the agricultural eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, since rebels there surrendered after a five year siege.
Those queueing said an alleged chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad, which prompted Western airstrikes on Saturday, had driven them to give up — although Assad says there was no such attack.
The United States accused Russia on Monday of blocking international inspectors from reaching the site of the suspected poison gas attack, and said Russians or Syrians may have tampered with evidence on the ground. Moscow denied the charge and blamed delays on retaliatory U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria on Saturday.
A tour of Douma organized for media by the government showed security forces standing on street corners near leftover rebel graffiti, and Russian military police patrolling the streets.
People jostled in the long queue to receive bread, rice and pasta, which was being handed out from state aid trucks at a major roundabout.
“Look at this humiliating scene,” said Amin Darkush, the region’s deputy police chief, watching dozens of people chasing a truck distributing bread. “People here only ate bread made of barley.”
The United Nations said there were severe shortages of food in eastern Ghouta throughout the government’s siege, though the main rebel group there said it had enough in its stores to last another year.
Hungry residents located large reserves of food after the rebels left, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group said. During the siege basic staples were often available in eastern Ghouta, but at very high prices.
All around Darkush were signs of the weeks of bombardment — some of the fiercest of the war — that brought the siege to an end.
Most of Douma’s remaining residents live in damaged buildings, on streets covered in rubble and with the remains of home furnishings.
On Omar bin al-Khattab Street a group of injured young men stood around, leaning on crutches.
All that remains of the rebels is the slogans painted on walls and shop fronts: “Eastern Ghouta, land of heroes and foundry of men,” “Douma is the graveyard of the Shabiha (pro-Assad militias)”
Outside what was once a pharmacy, a group of veiled women were hoping to find medicine.
“My son was injured when a bomb hit our house,” one said. “There is no medicine or bandages to treat him with. His leg might be amputated.”
Monday’s government tour did not include the building where on April 7, according to rescue workers and medics who were in town at the time, dozens of people were killed by poison gas as they sheltered from the bombardment.
OPCW inspectors arrived in Damascus on Friday, and were still waiting to visit Douma.
Assad, backed by his strongest ally Russia, has denied using or possessing any such weapons. Hours after the attack was reported, the rebels controlling Douma agreed to withdraw.
The hospital where the victims of the alleged attack were treated is underground, concealed beneath the shell of a large concrete Agriculture Ministry building whose exterior bears the scars of years of warfare: scorch marks and holes blasted in walls and roofs.
Huge vaulted tunnels, lined with metal, are big enough to allow ambulances to drive down to basements and chambers dug under the town. The hospital — which has an operating theater and an intensive care ward — is still being used.
Marwan Jaber, a medicine student at the hospital, told reporters on the media tour that none of the patients that night had suffered chemical weapons injuries, but that they were asphyxiated by dust and smoke in the bombardment.
Medical aid groups and the White Helmets rescue organization have said such statements — already aired on state television in recent days — were made under duress.
Relief organizations say dozens of men, women and children were killed, and footage of young victims foaming at the mouth and weeping in agony has been used to help justify the Western intervention.