Surrender or starve in besieged Syria

Surrender or starve in besieged Syria
In-depth: From northern Homs to Madaya, the Assad regime is tightening sieges on rebel-held towns, starving out locals who in turn are forced to eat grass.
10 min read
05 January, 2016
Hunger stalks Syria. The vulnerable are its prey.

"The victims of starvation are 62 martyrs up to date," Abu Hassan, the head of Madaya local council, told The New Arab.

The Syrian town of Madaya, near the border with Lebanon, has been bracing itself for catastrophic conditions since the regime took over the area in July.

"We eat herbs and leaves, but these are not available now so we just have boiled water and spices," said Abu Hassan.

"If we have the chance to smuggle anything, which will be a little of rice or bulgur, we distribute a cup of each to families to survive."

We eat herbs and leaves, but these are not available now so we just have boiled water and spices

Like many residents of Syria's besieged cities, he is frustrated with the lack of help and attention the city has received.

"We called upon the UN, but the UN Secretary-General said he's concerned. He should take a sleeping pill," he said.

A meal in Madaya [council page]

Although the UN has said that they are prevented from entering such areas due to fighting, all those spoken to by The New Arab are fed up with their stance.

"In the last three months the aid to enter Madaya is 10 kilos of rice, four kilos of sugar, four kilos of bulgur, five kilos of Homs oil, some bean cans and two kilos of spaghetti," he said. 

"Not enough aid for one family to last more than ten days."

In October the UN reportedly sent hundreds of mouldy biscuits to the area, leaving 200 residents with food poisoning. 

When asked about the Red Crescent's work in the city, Abu Hassan says the international aid organisation "does not exist".

Many have tried to leave the town to escape starvation, many were shot or maimed in the process.

"We have 15 cases of amputated legs from people trying to leave," said Abu Hassan. There are around 6,000 landmines surrounding the town. 

A malnutritioned girl in Madaya [Facebook]

He said around 20 people had been killed trying to leave the area.

On Monday, a pregnant woman trying to escape was reportedly shot dead by Hizballah fighters supporting the Assad troops' siege of the city. 

Abu Hassan's frustration is evident, when asked what the international community should be doing.

"Is there an international community?" he asked. "It is a community of political interests."

There are calls from the town for sympathisers to protest outside UN offices and Russian embassies in solidarity.

"We are a people that want to live in peace and security. We call upon every conscious human to save the women, children and elderly of Madaya because the humanitarian crisis that we're going through will continue to be a stain on humanity.

"In the end, I'm a human. If there's any humanity left in the world, they should know that we are eating dogs, cats and grass. Save Madaya."

We call upon every conscious human to save the women, children and elderly of Madaya because the humanitarian crisis that we're going through will continue to be a stain on humanity

The Syrian Opposition Coalition said on Monday night that the regime's practices in Madaya were aimed at "demographic change" and urged international action to save more than 40,000 civilians suffering from hunger and cold.

One member of the coalition said that "the situation in Madaya is an emergency that can no longer be tolerated". 

While the horrific situation in Madaya has led to marginally increased attention towards the city, the same story can be found across Syria. 

"Between January and November 2015, the UN could only reach 1.5 percent of the 400,000 people in need in besieged areas. This is unacceptable. The UN is clear that wilfully impeding relief supply and access can constitute a violation of international humanitarian law," said a UK Foreign Office statement released on Tuesday.

Starving Syria
- Surrender or starve in besieged Syria
- Displaced Syrians begin hunger strike in solidarity with Madaya
- Diary from Moadamiyeh, a besieged Damascus suburb
- Social media reacts to the starvation of Madaya

As the regime advances under the cover of Russian airstrikes, the ongoing sieges on isolated rebel-held areas have been tightened, in an apparent attempt to force the fighters to surrender.

A leader of the Ahrar al-Sham armed group - who left nearby Zabadani after a recent deal to evacuate rebels - said the severe famine in the area forced inhabitants to eat cats, weeds and garbage, adding that the dying civilians he had seen "no longer resembled humans" due to their emaciation. 

The siege of Zabadani also reportedly continues, despite the recent truce that allowed opposition fighters to be evacuated from the city. 

"We've dealt with 150 cases of unconsciousness and two deaths. People were unconscious because of malnutrition... they hadn't been getting food for a number of days," one doctor in the area told al-Jazeera on Monday. 

The besieged towns are not only on the border with Lebanon. 

Madaya's residents have been burning belongings to keep warm during the freezing weather [Facebook]

In the north of Homs, as Syrian government forces attempt to cut the area from opposition-held parts of Hama, the siege on the town of Talbiseh worsens.

Local activists are warning of catastrophe that could affect 300,000 residents living in the area.

"We haven’t had enough bread for the last week...all medical supplies will run out within one month," Fares, an activist in the area told The New Arab.

"The weather is so cold and there is no fuel...we are burning all our clothes and furniture to get warm... it’s very horrible here."

"There is no electricity for three years, we are using electrical generators which need fuel, and they will run out without 10 days, the bakery will stop without fuel."

"Talbeisa has been besieged for three years, but now the siege is worsening because the regime is trying to cut the road to the area."

The areas surrounding Talbeisa are held by the regime.  However, a road connects the area to Hama which are under rebel control, where the area has been managing to obtain some supplies.

"This is the last area - between Homs and Hama which is under rebel control, so the regime want to secure it," he said. "There are 300,000 people here."

Last year a very young girl died because of the cold weather.

"About seven months ago, the Red Crescent came to the area and gave supplies since then nothing entered."  

Last month the regime tried to advance with support from the Russian raids - the last raid was on the town of Trabaisa.

Syrians have seen the situation worsen since Russian intervention into the war.

Many say they can differentiate between Russian airstrikes and airstrikes from the regime because the former are even more horrific that those carried out by the Assad government.
Fares describes the Russian air raids as "very, very horrible... huge horror because they are using very big bombs on the cities, on the front lines and since the end of last September dozens of raids of the cities... that helped the regime advance to some towns in the last week". 

'Kneel or starve' signed by the soldiers of Assad [Facebook]

Fares’ warnings of imminent disaster are echoed by other local activists in the Homs area.

"The Syrian army will make a siege of the southern Hama countryside, as well as the countryside north of Homs, which will be shut off by closing the most important roads, through which enter medicine, food and sometimes arms" Abu Talib al-Himni, an activist in Hama, told The New Arab.

Al-Himni said added that the regime forces are working to impose a suffocating siege on the southern Hama and Northern, reminiscent to the old siege of Homs and "inspired by the sieges of Zabadani, and other besieged areas."

"Those 300,000 are not numbers, they are humans, they are families...they are kids who have dreams and lives. The international community and the world should pay some attention to them - they are humans on the same world that you are in," Al-Himni said.

Half an hour’s drive from Madaya, another town has also witnessed the siege on their area tighten. 

Moadamiyeh, a suburb of Damascus with around 30,000 residents, has also seen the grip tighten.

"Either we surrender or there will be a full war," said Mohammed Noor, a resident. 

"The Assad regime have built an earth wall on the only passage outside the city and blocking it off, preventing anyone going out or coming in, even the humanitarian cases."

"Two people died during the last 10 days - they refused to let their families to take them out to Damascus to hospital," he said.

"One of them is a new-born baby, and the other was six years old, because in the field hospital they can’t do anything to help people - there is no medicine no tools, nothing - it is empty," he said.

Activists shared the photo of the tiny new born with her ribs visible. 

"Moadamiyah is supposed to be on a truce... but this is fake."

Noor suspects that Moadamiyah is being used as a "blue print" for the impending political negotiations in Syria; that if the regime manages to force the town and its population to surrender, than the same scenario will be repeated and enforced around Syria.

"The political reconciliation is fake also," he said, referring to the negotiations at the UN.

"The Assad militias have been trying to take over and invade and they bombed the South of the city for 70 days, even the Russian airplanes," he said.

"There is nothing to buy at all - two years ago there was very expensive to buy food, but now there is nothing at all - people are eating what they stored... like olives and maqdoos and herbs."

The only road leading outside the city is blocked off by the regime and a massive earth wall [photo provided]

Residents have been stockpiling for years, including some who have been making a profit off selling the food for a hugely inflated prices - more than $34 for a pound of rice.   

"But during the last 10 days since the passage is blocked no one sells anything, they just keep it... maybe they will wait until rates are more expensive... the dealers, traders and smugglers are helping the regime," he said.

"There is an office in the local council of the city who distributes food when it is brought, they buy food and give it to people who are severely starved, but the normal people they don’t have food to give it to another family."

As the other Syrians we spoke to, he mocks the help the UN has provided to the city.

"In 2014, when they brought aid, we asked the head of aid in UN Damascus, I asked him, are you going to come back and bring aid because the shipments are not enough - he said yes we will try to come back once a month, but since 2014 they not come back - every time we call them, they say we will try our best," Noor said.

"After 2014, the Red Crescent who come to Moadamiyah distribute aid to Assad supporters in another neighbourhood only," he said.

Noor says that although this was probably a regime condition for the delivery of aid to the rest of Moadamiyah, the majority of the city's population haven't seen any aid for more than a year.

"People are just looking for warmth - it is very cold and windy and there is nothing to get warm - not even wood, it isn’t available because of shelling - they use plastic and shoes and clothes... they are not thinking of food but are afraid of dying from freezing."

Like the situation in northern Homs, there are clear military objectives to the siege; Moadamiyah is close to another rebel-held area Darraya, and the regime have been attempting to isolate the two cities.

"If we surrender Darraya is alone," said Noor. "If we don't we starve."

Follow Imogen Lambert on Twitter: @InnogenLamb