Special Reports  ::   Flash Report on the Recent Attacks on Douma - February 2015

Flash Report on the Recent Attacks on Douma, Damascus Suburbs

Use of Vacuum Bombs and Deliberate Targeting of Medical Units
Violations Documentations Center in Syria (VDC)

February 2015


Syrian government forces continue - almost daily – their large-scale, random, deliberate strikes on civilians and civilian infrastructures in the cities and towns of Syria, especially in the besieged parts of Eastern Ghouta. These strikes have caused dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries among civilians, and have generally terrorized them.  Medical units fail to adequately help the injured because their movement and capacity are limited by the siege that the government forces have imposed on entire sections of Eastern Ghouta. In the past week, different armed factions working under the Syrian government launched a series of attacks on the city of Douma[1]; one of the largest and most prominent cities in the Eastern Ghouta, which had been completely besieged for more than two years by the Syrian governmental forces. The city's residents described these attacks as the deadliest attacks on the city since 6/28/2012 when government forces had stormed the city for the first time committing horrific massacres against more than 79 civilians.                                                                                   

Attacks of February 2015

Since the beginning of this year, the cities and towns of the besieged Eastern Ghouta, especially Douma, have witnessed a series of random and deliberate airstrikes by the Syrian Air Forces, . The VDC was able to document dozens of such airstrikes by MiG and Sukhoi warplanes, as well as bombardments involving hundreds of mortar shells[2] and rocket launchers and dozens of artillery missiles. Collectively, these attacks have killed more than 150 civilians, including 36 children and 20 women. During the month of January 2015, more than 60 civilian casualties were reported in Douma city alone.

By the beginning of February, shelling on Douma noticeably increased. The VDC has documented more than 120 civilian victims and more than a thousand injured. Moreover, many houses, buildings and medical units were either fully or partially damaged. Tha'er Hijazi, a VDC field researcher monitored and documented most of the raids and shells that fell on the city and visited many of the targeted places. He said:

"At the beginning of February, and according to eyewitnesses, government forces mobilized more than 4,000 fighters near the International Highway, Wafideen Camp and Adra Central Prison, north of Douma. Clashes between government forces and opposition armed groups began on 3 February 2015 and continued to the following day. Several 'type 57' artillery shells fell during these clashes, and warplanes carried out a number of sporadic airstrikes causing the injury of several children. On 4 February 2015, at about ten o'clock in the morning, "The School District" was targeted by a surface-to-surface missile, which led to the destruction of a large part of the School of Excellent Students, Al-Mutafawikoun School. Twenty minutes later, a rocket landed on a residential neighborhood (Safa neighborhood) and led to the destruction of more than ten houses and the injury of several people. Many airstrikes followed after that from warplanes but luckily no casualties were reported.

On Thursday, 5 February 2015, shelling on the city started early. More than 5 mortar shells fell on the city consecutively, one of which fell near the Central Hospitalization Unit. At about 8:15 in the morning, after I had gone to one of the media offices in the area, warplanes targeted the city with four vacuum missiles (with parachutes). The first fell right on the roof of the three-floor-building on the first floor of which I myself was that morning. I felt a great pressure that pushed me two meters before I fell to the ground. The building was greatly damaged, especially the upper floor, where the whole Badran family was killed – the father, mother and their son. The missile also led to the destruction of more than five buildings nearby. The second missile fell on a medical unit that included a central operation room. A doctor was injured, a paramedic got serious burns, a woman from Tarkho family and her son died and dozens of others were injured during the attack.

The third missile fell near another medical unit (the Central Hospitalization Unit). Airstrikes followed intensively after that along with the fall of 20 mortar shells. That day recorded more than 20 airstrikes on Douma[3], which killed 31 people, documented by VDC, and injured more people. The medical units were unable to receive most of them because the siege imposed on the area by government forces for more than two years had limited medical cadres and their capacity to act. 

The frequency of shelling varied over the following three days until 9 February 2015 when the city witnessed new massacres, the first of which was due to mortar shelling on al-Ghanam Market, a very crowded market-place where 15 civilians were killed (also documented by VDC) and more than a hundred were injured. At about 11:00 am, warplanes renewed their shelling of the city with several missiles. One of these missiles fell on Taha Mosque area, specifically on a three-floor-residential-building. It was completely demolished and burned, along with its residents. More than 15 civilians died immediately (they were also documented by VDC) and more than a hundred sustained injuries. That was followed by another missile which targeted an old house and destroyed it completely.


Targeting Medical Units:

Dr. Abu Adnan, the Spokesman of the Unified Medical Office in Douma, informed the VDC that over one thousand civilians were injured and more than 70 others were killed between 5 and 10 February 2015.

He added that "three medical units were targeted during those airstrikes, which I believe were not random at all. I think they were intended to destroy the already scarce medical capacity in the city."

From his side, Dr. Fares, one of the medical cadres in Douma, said that out of the 975 injuries he documented from the beginning of February 2015 to the 10th., most  were head, abdomen and chest injuries in addition to some fractures, artery cuts and many  cases of hemorrhage. He added that his medical team performed more than 156 surgeries with full anesthetization and sent the more critical cases to other medical units in Eastern Ghouta. They had to perform dozens of amputations and faced serious difficulties in providing blood bags or even finding donors. He said that the shelling greatly affected the medical system in the city as the missiles fell near the medical units, which led to the injury of two doctors, unique in their specialization in Eastern Ghouta. Three civil defense paramedics and a nurse were injured, three ambulances were destroyed and a nurse was killed on 9 February 2015.

Activists Muhammad Badra and Hussam Taqi al-Deen, the correspondence of Sham News Network, believe these airstrikes were, "the fiercest and the most violent. So destructive that they displaced dozens of families to areas near the Eastern Ghouta." Badra added, "I will never be able to forget the carnages and genitals of victims scattered all over the targeted area."

Since the beginning of February 2015, the VDC documented the death of more than (170) civilians (full names available) due to mortar and warplanes shelling on the cities of Eastern Ghouta, with (120) of them were reported in Douma alone. Those victims included (29) children and (28) women.

The destruction of dozens of residential buildings was also reported. 

These largely indiscriminate airstrikes on Douma city, just a few few kilometers away from Damascus, followed a BBC interview with Bashar Assad on 9 February 2015, in which he claimed to be "defending the civilians" and denied the use of barrel bombs and/or any other indiscriminate weapon by his military.

The recent attacks launched by the Syrian government forces on the city of Douma, did not comply with the principle of distinction between civilian and military objectives under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). IHL expressly prohibits any military action against civilians and civilian objects.

The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) strongly condemns the deliberate attacks by Syrian government forces on several medical units in Douma, which were exclusively used for medical purposes. Such medical units must be respected and protected in all circumstances. This rule is implicit in common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which Syria ratified. Under customary international humanitarian law, the term “medical units” refers to establishments and other units, whether military or civilian, organised for medical purposes, be they fixed or mobile, permanent or temporary. The term includes, for example, hospitals and other similar units, blood transfusion centres, preventive medicine centres and institutes, medical depots and the medical and pharmaceutical stores of such units. Article 8(2)(e)(ii) and (iv) of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, makes the intentional directing of attacks against “hospitals and places where the sick and the wounded are collected a war crime in non-international armed conflicts.                                  

VDC also denounces the Syrian government forces’ growing use of thermobaric weapons (known as vacuum bombs) on Douma city. The VDC documented the dropping of four vacuum bombs on civilian dwellings in scattered neighborhoods in Douma leading to the collapse of the buildings affected. The vacuum bombs have also caused blast winds which threw bodies against the ground, according to eyewitnesses. The inhabitants of the affected buildings were obliterated. The casualties in the vicinity of the affected buildings, as noted by the testimonies of doctors receiving them in the medical unites, suffered many internal, and invisible injuries, including ruptured lungs and internal organs. Those testimonies confirm the strong likelihood of the use by the Syrian government forces of “vacuum bombs.” As such, vacuum bombshave an obvious and uncontrollable tendency towards indiscriminateness.”[4] When dropped on civilian buildings, they are unequivocally indiscriminate. Their destructive effect is so devastating that it makes it impossible for civilian to take shelter even in basements and caves. The United States had used vacuum bombs in Vietnam. The Russian forces used such bombs against Chechnyan cities, specifically targeting persons in fortified bunkers. The use by the Syrian government forces of “vacuum bombs” in the Douma urban area appears to be intended to cause maximum causalities among civilians, as it is impossible for civilians to shelter themselves from their destructive effect. In these circumstances, the use of vacuum bombs as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Douma constitutes a crime against humanity.                                                                                                                                                    

A VDC exclusive collection of photos of Douma city:

Photo taken by activist Yaser Doumani

Photo taken by activist Firas al-Abdullah

Photo taken by activist Muhammad Badra

Photo taken by activist Hussam Syria

[1] The population of Douma, according to the city's municipality, amounted to 700,000 prior to March 2011. However, this number has dramatically decreased for several reasons including the repeated raids by government forces at the beginning of the revolution and the daily shelling and attacks on the city, which forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee. Today, the population in Douma is estimated to over 200,000, including a substantive number of women, children and orphans.

[2] Eyewitnesses told the VDC that most of the mortar, rocket launchers and artillery shelling originates either from the Vehicles Administration in Harasta, Assad Township or Wafideen Camp near Adra city, which are all controlled by the government forces

[3] Warplanes launched several airstrikes on the same day, especially on the market in Kafar Batna city, which was targeted by four missiles. Accordingly, more than 32 civilians – all documented by VDC - were killed, including 4 children and 3 women, and more than 40 were injured, in addition to  the great damage to the market and the residential houses nearby. That day, more than 40 airstrikes and dozens of mortar shells were recorded in Eastern Ghouta.

[4] ICRC, Weapons that may Cause Unnecessary Suffering or have Indiscriminate Effects, Report on the Work of Experts, (Geneva: ICRC, 1973), p. 48, par. 150.

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