“City of a Million Displaced” enters sixth month of siege despite truce

AMMAN: In the northern Damascus countryside, a city nicknamed “The City of a Million Displaced” is entering its sixth month of regime encirclement despite an informal truce that went into effect in 2013.

“For six months we've been unable to get anything into a-Tel,” Haitham Al-Ghoutani, originally a humanitarian aid worker from Douma who fled to a-Tel, told Syria Direct Tuesday from inside the besieged city.

A-Tel, located in the Qalamoun mountains about 23km southeast of Zabadani, entered into an informal truce with the regime in early 2013. At that time, local dignitaries met with regime representatives and came to an understanding that “the regime wouldn't enter the city, and in return the FSA wouldn't target nearby regime checkpoints and barracks,” Ahmed al-Bayanuni, member of the a-Tel Local Coordination Committee, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

“Of course this truce was never announced formally,” al-Bayanuni said. The agreement was jeopardized six months ago when the regime encircled a-Tel and restricted movement in and out of the town concurrent with its assault on nearby rebel-held Zabadani, the gateway into the Qalamoun mountains.

A scene from a-Tel on Monday. Photo courtesy of Ahmed al-Bayanuni.

The regime hoped to use the a-Tel blockade to pressure the rebels of Zabadani into surrendering, a citizen journalist nicknamed Amal Qalamoun told pro-opposition All4Syria in October, a belief common in opposition circles according to Syria Direct’s reporting.

Syrians from East Ghouta have steadily fled to a-Tel since the end of 2012, when the regime intensified its bombardment and then imposed a strangling encirclement on the east Damascus suburbs that continues until today.

The last available informal population count, conducted by aid organizations approximately six months ago, recorded 1 million people living in the city, said al-Ghoutani. Original inhabitants account for no more than 10 percent of that number; the rest are internally displaced, mostly from the now-encircled Damascus countryside.

Students and government employees are among the only residents allowed to exit the city. Soldiers at regime checkpoints search people as they enter a-Tel to make sure they don't bring in any food, said LCC member al-Bayanuni. Residents are permitted to sporadically leave to obtain food from the adjacent regime-controlled town of Hurneh, as bakeries stopped operating in a-Tel when the blockade began.

In Hurneh, they purchase a parcel of 11 or 12 loaves for SP250, five times the going rate in Damascus.

“I personally know displaced families who spend their days with no food,” said al-Bayanuni.

The regime's encirclement of a-Tel has hit residents especially hard as winter sets in. Soldiers prevent the entry of diesel and gas, used for heating, Yasser Hamada, a humanitarian worker from Douma whose organization supports aid groups in the Damascus countryside, told Syria Direct Tuesday.

“They measure the amount of diesel in the buses that transport employees to and from a-Tel, and confiscate any they believe to be extra,” Hamada said.

More than 400 families are living in unfinished houses because they can't afford to pay rent, said al-Ghoutani. They are contending with biting cold that settles over the elevated city in the winter (a-Tel means “the hill” in Arabic.)

A-Tel residents have tried to negotiate an end to the siege, said al-Ghoutani, to no avail. In the last six months, regime representatives have demanded that rebel fighters hand over their weapons, leave the city and turn themselves in in return for lifting the encirclement.

Residents refuse “because their departure would cause another tragedy,” said al-Ghoutani.

“There are more than 7,000 young men in a-Tel wanted for mandatory reserve service.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Dan Wilkofsky

Dan Wilkofsky was a 2013-2014 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Amman, Jordan, where he worked with Talal Abu Ghazaleh Translation and the Ministry of Social Development. He has a BA in Classics (Latin) and Middle East Studies from Brown University.