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'Weaponizing Aid' — Desperation Politics In Eastern Ghouta

A Syrian boy runs past rubble in eastern Al Ghouta province, outside Damascus
A Syrian boy runs past rubble in eastern Al Ghouta province, outside Damascus
Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi and Kim Bode

BEIRUT – Russia's proposal for a partial truce in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus is not a "humanitarian pause," but a "humanitarian posture," says Dr. Annie Sparrow, a critical-care pediatrician and public health professional.

In Syria Deeply's latest Deeply Talks, Sparrow and Mohamed Katoub, advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), spoke with our editors about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the besieged Damascus suburbs. (Listen to the full audio here)

Last week, Moscow called for daily, five-hour cessations of hostilities to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations. However, it usually takes a convoy between eight to 10 hours to deliver aid to the rebel-held enclave, both doctors said.

This first convoy of aid arrived Monday in the area, which is now suffering from persistent attacks against healthcare in addition to severe shortages in medical supplies and life-saving medicine. Even for the convoys that do arrive in Eastern Ghouta, they would only play a "limited" and "cosmetic" role in alleviating the suffering of nearly five years of living under siege and fierce government shelling that has killed nearly 600 people since February 18, said Katoub.

Katoub said that more than 29 attacks against healthcare staff and services have been reported since the start of the government's latest escalation. More than 10 ambulances have been destroyed and at least six health facilities have been put out of service because of the shelling.

These attacks have reduced the capacity of health staff to respond to medical needs by more than 40 percent, Katoub said, adding that doctors are adjusting to deteriorating conditions by reusing medical supplies that are meant for one-time use and prioritizing life-saving operations over less-fatal cases.

Meanwhile, Sparrow noted that only 107 doctors remained in Eastern Ghouta, where they have to provide care for 400,000 people; 80% of whom are estimated to be living in underground shelters and basements. "To put that in perspective, under normal circumstances, one doctor may look after 100 patients. That is a ratio we consider to be appropriate and normal," she said. "And these are patients that are suffering from the normal range of diseases, not including this incredible burden produced by war trauma, bombs, chemicals weapons and chronic disease.

The U.N. has condemned the recent escalation and has called on Moscow and Damascus to respect the United Nations Security Council resolution passed on Saturday demanding a 30-day nationwide cease-fire.

However, the U.N. is not taking the "needed actions to save lives," even though it has ground access to Eastern Ghouta, Katoub said.

"The U.N. are partners in this war crime," he said, noting that statements would not be enough to save civilians stuck in the opposition holdout.

Sparrow said that, through its inaction, the U.N. has "weaponized aid."

"The U.N. has adopted this posture where they are in Damascus, there are hundreds of international staff, it's a multibillion-dollar operation, and they insist that some of this will trickle down to people in need. But it is very clearly not," Sparrow said. "One could even argue that they are complicit in the war crimes by adopting this posture and refusing to stop working with the very same government that is committing these crimes."

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Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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