DAMASCUS, Syria – Fadi Khoury was shopping with his wife and three-year-old boy in Damascus when the barrage of mortars crashed around them, severely wounding the couple and killing their only child.
Monday’s attack on the eastern Bab Touma district, which occurred as children were leaving schools, was one of the deadliest launched in recent weeks by insurgents in the besieged suburbs of the capital.
Fighting has intensified in recent days as government forces push into the area known as eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, which has been besieged for weeks and pounded by airstrikes and artillery. Dozens have been killed on both sides, and the siege has caused severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Health Minister Nizar Yazigi said Monday’s shelling killed nine people and wounded 21. He said “terrorists” were seeking to pressure the government by firing shells into “safe areas” as government forces advance, and predicted that the insurgents would soon be defeated.
President Bashar Assad has consolidated his control over key areas of Syria in the past few years with the support of Iran and Russia, but has been unable to stop the rebels from striking at his seat of power. Damascus is relatively secure and brimming with life, but the fleeting sense of normalcy can be shattered at any time by the whistle and thud of mortar rounds and rockets.
Khoury had brought his wife and child into the city from their village of Maaret Saidnaya for some shopping earlier in the day. Bab Touma, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood, is a popular shopping destination and residential district.
Just after 2 p.m., insurgents fired several shells into the neighbourhood, instantly striking down and killing three-year-old Elias Khoury. His parents were left severely wounded and both are now in intensive care at the nearby French Hospital.
“I will not forgive them because of what happened to this child,” said Nayfeh Khoury, 80, the child’s paternal grandmother, as she sat grieving in the hospital’s yard along with other relatives Tuesday, dressed in black and wiping away tears. “There will be no forgiveness.”
The child’s parents, she said, still don’t know that their son died and keep asking about him.
“We tell them he is in the children’s hospital… We are lying to them now but then what? What will we say? What will we do, what can I do?”
She says Elias was their only child, born after they had spent four years trying to have a baby.
“They have buried us alive,” she said, referring to the militants.
Munir al-Hosh, Elias’ maternal uncle, said his sister suspects that her son was killed because when she was bleeding in the street she asked someone about Elias and was told he was dead.
“Still, when she asked us, we told her he is in hospital and will need several operations,” he said.
Elias’ father, Fadi, suffered serious injuries and could lose his right leg. His mother, Manal al-Hosh, was hit by shrapnel in her neck and has broken bones.
Pascale al-Khalil, 16, who had just left school with her friend, was also wounded in the attack. She heard a loud explosion, and when she approached a checkpoint to ask what was going on another shell landed, leaving a gash on her forehead.
“I fainted and woke up in hospital later,” she said from her hospital bed, where she held a wooden cross and a teddy bear.
Her father, Marcel, said that when he heard his daughter was wounded, “we went crazy.” He choked and barely held back tears, saying “the situation is very dangerous. We will not dare send our kids to school anymore.”