Starvation in south Damascus

Starvation in south Damascus
Residents of south Damascus have been under siege for two years, enduring unspeakable hardships and isolation. Now with food becoming more scare and agencies unable to reach them, they face death by starvation.
5 min read
15 March, 2015
Almost 170 people have starved to death in Yarmouk Camp [Getty]
"Everyday I dream of food as I go to bed and when I wake up. I cannot think about anything other than finding something to eat. The last thing I ate were a few Khubaizi ["mallow"] leaves without any bread", said Abdu, encapsulating the suffering of the people in south Damascus, who have been under a full siege for over two years.

The siege was further intensified three months ago when Beit Sahem was closed, the only crossing with some movement because of a truce between the people of Bebila and Beit Sahem, and the regime.

     The price of one kilogram of rice has increased from 700 to 7,000 Syrian pounds (over $30).
Activists say when the decision to close Beit Sahem crossing was announced three months ago, prices rose more than tenfold. For example, the price of one kilogram of rice increased from 700 to 7,000 Syrian pounds (over $30); let alone the already scarce commodities that the regime would allow the people of Beit Sahem and Bebila to bring on specified times.

They also would bring food for residents in neighbouring areas that did not have a truce with the regime including: Yarmouk camp, al-Hajar al-Aswad, Tadamon, Bebila, Yalda, Beit Sahem and al-Qadam. These areas have over 150,000 residents, compared to 1.5 million before the revolution.

Unlike the besieged eastern Ghouta, these areas have no agricultural land or livestock; they are completely built up and denesely populated with residents from different Syrian provinces.

Yarmouk camp is mainly known as a Palestinian refugee community, even though now over half its residents are Syrian. The adjacent al-Hajar al-Aswad predoinantly houses Syrians displaced from the occupied Golan Heights. The other areas are populated by farmers, whose lands have been built on, forcing them to find different work.

These areas, known as the poverty belt surrounding Damascus, were initially involved in popular protests. However, these peaceful protests were violently oppressed by the regime as in other areas. Thousands of residents were arrested or killed, and most of the rest left gradually as military operations increased in the following years. Those who remained had nowhere to go, or were wanted by security authorities and dared not leave.

Figures show that almost 170 people have starved to death in Yarmouk Camp, and around 90 more in al-Hajar al-Aswad. Regime forces. In addition, Palestinian and Iraqi militias fighting alongside the regime have imposed a full blockade on neighbouring al-Hajar al-Aswad area, which is no more than three kilometres away from the farthest point of Yarmouk to the south. Beit Sahem to the east and al-Qadam to the West are also under a blockade.

The regime and its militias have tightened their blockade of this area. Any residents trying to leave can be monitored. Many have been killed by the regime's snipers, including women and children, when they trying and leave or to grab herbs to eat from the edges of the besieged area.

At the start of the blockade, some civil bodies actively tried to help those suffering in these areas by offering group meals and in-kind assistance. However, this disappeared over a year because of a lack of support. For example, the local council of al-Hajar al-Aswad ran a central kitchen with free daily meals for the residents. However, it has not offered any meals since Ramadan in 2013.

Media activist Rami al-Sayed, a resident of al-Hajar al-Aswad, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that over the past two years the area had only received small amounts of money from the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) and interim government, and only $16,000 over the past eight months.

Younes al-Jolani, head of the external office of al-Hajar al-Aswad's local council, said: "We have not received their distress call, and we have been warning that continuing the blockade would cause a humanitarian catastrophe."

"The interim government's Qunaitra provincial council promised to send us emergency funds, but it has not sent any yet," he added.
     Power has been cut in the area since December 2013, when the regime bombed the power plant.

Jolani said that the regime's forces would not allow any assistance to reach the area without a truce. "The local council cannot reach a truce with the regime without approval from armed factions controlling the area," he explained.

The regime agreed to open the Beit Sahem crossing if the Nusra Front left the area. This led residents to rally against Nusra, which was followed by clashes between the latter and the Free Syrian Army's Sham al-Rasoul brigade. Nusra gave into the demands and withdrew from Beit Sahem and Yalda two days ago. However, the regime has not yet reopened the crossing.

Additionally, power has been cut in the area since December 2013, when the regime bombed the power plant, which was worth billions of Syrian pounds. There is no fuel available in the area, forcing people to use wood for heating and cooking, and to make basic fuel for cars by melting plastic.

The ACU said it had reached an agreement with the interim government to deliver the first instalment of emergency funds to local partners in beseiged areas. "Our partners have already started preparing food portions and children's milk for distribution to residents in besieged areas of Damascus and its countryside, as well as Homs,” the ACU said.

The ACU's main partners are the provincial councils in the countryside around Damascus, Homs, and Qunaitra, as well as the Yarmouk Camp commission and al-Sham Amana foundation. The initiative's budget is worth $2.5 million, the ACU stated.

The emergency funds intervention is part of the food security campaign, that has a budget of $3.49 million. This was taken from the total budget of the Takatof programme, and is a response to deteriorating living conditions in areas besieged under the "hunger or submission" policy, that aims to break the people's perseverance.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.