Thousands of Syrians fled their homes in the Eastern Ghouta region as Syrian government forces seized rebel territory. The reported number of the refugees fleeing the region Thursday varied, with Syrian state media claiming 10,000 and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a British organization) saying 12,500.
This is one of the largest mass exoduses to take place in a single day during the entire Syrian civil war.
A spokesman for one of the rebel groups accused the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using escaping civilians as human shields. With nowhere else to go, the civilians have been fleeing into territory controlled by Assad.
In February, the U.N. attempted to institute a cease-fire in Eastern Ghouta to bring desperately needed humanitarian aid to the region. Both this and a separate cease-fire pushed by Russia had been largely ignored. Russia remains one of the few allies of the Syrian regime and is now involved with the attack on Ghouta.
Roughly 300,000 people are still trapped in Ghouta, as the fighting continues. The region has been under siege from Assad’s forces since 2012, and 1,500 civilians in Eastern Ghouta have died in the past three weeks as the regime intensified its attempts to retake rebel territory near the capital city of Damascus.
Ghouta is also the site of a sarin gas attack in 2013, which reportedly killed 1,400. Just last week, the town of Hamouriyeh in Ghouta was the target of another reported toxic gas attack.
The Guardian quoted a local journalist who said “the most difficult scene is how people are going on foot to those who, a day earlier, or hours earlier, were throwing at them barrel bombs, chlorine, phosphorus, and incendiary weapons.” The journalist explained “it’s a matter of survival, and people are saying we are dead either way.”
Civilians have born the brunt of the casualties in the Syrian civil war, which started exactly seven years ago Thursday. Out of around 511,000 people who have been killed in the war, 85 percent have been civilians who died at the hands of the Syrian regime. More than 5.4 million people have fled the country, and an additional 6.5 million have been forced to leave their homes and flee to other parts of Syria.