By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with additional reporting by Philippa Hitchen in Vatican City and Stefan J. Bos
DAMASCUS/VATICAN CITY (BosNewsLife)-- The Vatican and aid workers have urged the world to help end an "apocalyptic" bombing campaign in Syria where "thousands of families" live in underground shelters and "millions of children" are malnourished.
Christians are also among the many displaced men, women, and children in the Middle Eastern nation, BosNewsLife learned.
As the Syrian civil war entered its eighth year this week, aid group Save the Children said the "apocalyptic" bombing campaign in Syria's Eastern Ghouta region should stop. The strikes targeted homes, schools, hospitals and other medical facilities, the group noted. "For hundreds of thousands of children in Syria, this is the worst point of the conflict so far," its report said.
Thousands of Syrian civilians have fled from Eastern Ghouta this week, crossing by foot to army positions in the first mass exodus from the besieged enclave since Syrian government forces launched an assault to capture it from rebels a month ago.
More than 7,000 people left Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on Saturday morning, March 17, Russia's TASS news agency reported, citing the Centre for Reconciliation in Syria, a body run by Russia’s defense ministry. Among those fleeing the area were many visibly exhausted men, women, and children, footage seen by BosNewsLife shows.
The forced departure of civilians is the latest in a series of tragedies rocking Syria, where many children are suffering as a result of the ongoing conflict.
Of Syria's roughly 10 million children, the United Nations claims 8.6 million are now in dire need of assistance, with over half of them displaced or living as refugees.
Many face the daily hazards of landmines, even in areas where the conflict has died down. Most suffer from malnutrition, preventable illnesses, and severe stress, living in fear of their lives, aid workers said.
While casualty figures vary, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented over 19,000 children killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Calls for cease-fires have been ignored, with dozens of civilians dying every day, according to recent statistics.
Amid the turmoil, the Vatican's envoy in the country, Cardinal Mario Zenari, demanded financial and practical support for three Church-run hospitals in Damascus and Aleppo.
HEALTH SYSTEM DESTROYED
The nuncio told reporters that battles are destroying Syria’s health system and that two-thirds of medical personnel have been killed or fled the country.
Last year, the cardinal launched the project “Open hospitals,” to provide health services for the poorest sectors of the mostly Muslim population in the area.
The church move is an effort to calm tensions in a country where Islamic militants are attacking minority Christians.
The aid came after Pope Francis appealed for the immediate cessation of violence in Syria to ensure that all people could get access to food and medicine, and the evacuation of the wounded and the sick. "We pray to God," he said, "that this happens without delay.”
The leader of over 1 billion Catholics also complained that hospitals are facing bombardments and that many are without food.
“All of this is inhumane,” Pope Francis added. “One cannot fight evil with another evil.”
Cardinal Zenari said Pope Francis’ "many pleas and practical initiatives" on behalf of the Syrian people over the past five years include the first day of prayer and fasting for peace in 2013, a 2016 letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as urgent appeals for an end to the conflict.
Despite these efforts, fighting continues between Russian-backed Syrian government forces and rebels, who have been supported by the U.S.-led coalition.
The different coalitions are also targeting Islamic extremists, further complicating a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.