'No one knows how to go on': 40,000 residents of rebel-held Damascus neighborhood trapped behind government siege

In the east Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh, just north of rebel-held East Ghouta, 40,000 civilians are running out of food in a small opposition-controlled pocket just one square kilometer in size.

Surrounded on all sides by regime forces, food and supplies have not entered Barzeh since the Syrian government began its campaign to wrest control of it and two adjacent, strategic neighborhoods from rebel hands in February.

Since February, the regime has bombed Barzeh on an almost daily basis, recapturing up to 90 percent of the fertile orchards surrounding it. Now, only one square kilometer remains under rebel control, and it is tightly encircled by the Syrian government.

The reality is that the regime wants to put pressure on the locals, starve them and force them to kneel,” a resident and the head of the Barzeh Media Office, Adnan a-Dimashqi, tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.

With all roads leading in and out of the neighborhood closed by the regime, residents are relying on strategic stockpiles they compiled ahead of the siege in order to survive.

With food running out, the prices of some basic goods have quadrupled, while other commodities have entirely disappeared from store shelves.

Q: Is there any way for supplies to reach people inside Barzeh? Where are people getting their food?

No, there is no way for supplies to enter Barzeh. After the regime placed its siege on the region and advanced in the orchards, people are now relying on whatever they’ve managed to stockpile in their homes, and the little they can gather from farms in the orchards.

Barzeh and the surrounding area were under truce for three years with the regime, and opened up to the capital. It’s what made it possible for us to stockpile food, though I can’t estimate how effective our stockpiles will be.

An April 9 airstrike on Barzeh. Photo courtesy of Barzeh Media Office.

Q: Are there any cases of malnutrition or death from starvation as in Madaya or East Ghouta? How can people buy food now that it’s so expensive and people are losing their jobs?

At this point, there haven’t been any recorded cases of death by starvation, but maybe we will see some soon if the situation continues like this. However, there are cases of malnutrition, especially with breastfeeding children and toddlers up to three years old, because there is no milk whatsoever.

People are buying food with what’s left of their savings or incomes, and those who don’t have money or work are bound to die from hunger. No one but God knows how they will be able to go on.

Some people wander around to get meals, either from one of the charity kitchens that sometimes distribute meals to people, or from kitchens belonging to the rebels, or from the edible plants in peoples’ gardens.

Q: What about the medical situation in the area? How are people getting treated?

The medical situation isn’t the best. There’s the Hope Clinic, which is the only one in the area that treats people from their own medical inventory, but there is definitely a lack of medications. Most pharmacies closed their doors after their stock depleted, because even before the siege, the regime had prohibited medicine from entering the region. What they had was snuck into Barzeh without the regime’s knowledge, and was in storehouses.

Q: Have certain supplies disappeared? What is available?

Some goods have begun to disappear from the markets, such as flour and sugar. It’s very rare that you’ll find a kilogram of flour at stores, and their inventories are made up of whatever remains of their stockpiles—sold at insane prices.

Fruit and some vegetables have disappeared, and all that remains are what can be farmed in the orchards, such as spinach and chard.

But even the orchards, which residents once relied upon, have been mostly lost by the opposition. The regime has taken control of about 90 percent of the orchards.

There is neglect from charity organizations as well, which have almost suspended their work. They provide about 150 loaves of bread every day, but it’s a negligible amount.

Q: What are the prices of basic goods? How much have they increased since the neighborhood was totally encircled?

Prices have quadrupled.

Q: After attempts by rebels to take control of parts of eastern Damascus last month, did the regime intensify its siege of Barzeh in retaliation?

Every time the regime loses soldiers or matériel, it takes its revenge on civilians by increasing the pace of bombings—a deliberate step by the regime to target civilians.

In the orchards surrounding Barzeh, there are ongoing clashes between the regime and the opposition.

Today, 40,000 people live in a neighborhood one square kilometer in size. As a result of the small area, and the high density of residents, every bomb and every artillery shell kills civilians. People are now living in basements and shelters.

The reality is that the regime wants to put pressure on residents, starve them and force them to kneel. In the end, they aim to repeat the same scenario that we’ve seen in Wadi Barada, Darayya and elsewhere.

Q: As a civilian trapped inside Barzeh, how do you spend your days? How has life become difficult? If the regime actually proposed an evacuation deal, would you be for or against leaving?

Life has become extremely hard, and people are just trying to stay alive. Most of them spend their days thinking about how to feed themselves and their children.

I’m not married and don’t have children, but I still suffer—so how does somebody with a family of five or six people provide food for their family? I work as an activist in the area. Every day I observe people’s lives, taking pictures and documenting what happens, and I see exhaustion and a heavy burden in their eyes.

After you spend the same amount of time waiting in lines to get a little burghul or yogurt, things are still unfortunately really bad, and hunger is one of the most heinous weapons. I’m not a proponent of evacuating and I don’t want to leave, and most people are like that. Nobody is ever happy to leave his land or house, nor hopes to do so. God willing, we die here as martyrs on our land and in our neighborhood, and never leave.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.