Starvation breeds desperation: ‘There is no longer a deterrent for people against crime’

Crime is rising exponentially in one Damascus suburb as its 45,000 residents grow increasingly hungry…and desperate.

Theft in Moadhamiyet a-Sham has been growing since the regime encircled the town’s perimeter in early 2013, Abu Kenan a-Dimashqi, a member of the local council responsible for providing social services in the town, tells Syria Direct's Alaa Nasser.

“Someone might say, 'I have children and don't have anything to feed them given the siege...so of course I'll steal,'” says a-Dimashqi.

The regime struck Moadhamiyet, 12km southwest of central Damascus, in August 2013 with chemical weapons. Four months later, Moadhamiyet was the first Syrian town to enter into a truce with the regime, after enduring an airtight, year-long encirclement resulting in nearly a dozen civilians dying of starvation. Once famous in Syria for its olive groves, Moadhamiyet became known as the  “starving suburb,” where residents survived on unripened olives and watery grass soup.

From the beginning of the truce’s implementation, residents said that the regime was not holding up to its side. Despite promises to the contrary, it only allowed small quantities of food and medicine to enter Moadhamiyet, while preventing the passage of flour and medicine, according to a statement last year by the pro-opposition Moadhamiyet a-Sham Local Council.

Now, nearly three years later, the absence of any strong state authority to hold criminals accountable combined with scarce resources are encouraging the spread of theft in Moadhamiyet, says a-Dimashqi.

The local council took action, and last weekend opened a police station. Based in a bombed-out school, the station will be staffed by 200 volunteers pulled from the civilian population and the Free Syrian Army, says a-Dimashqi.

The mission of the new police force, the council member says, is civilian: “The police will stop any act of aggression, regardless of who the perpetrator is, and preserve security and safety in the city.”

Q: Where did you get the idea to establish a police station in Moadhamiyet? What sorts of services will it provide?

The idea sprung out of an urgent need for an organization to get the city under control and stop any act of aggression or crime, seeing as the state is absent. Thieves and saboteurs became more active, and as a result of these problems, it was necessary to establish the police station.

The police will stop any act of aggression, regardless of who the perpetrator is, and preserve security and safety in the city. They will keep excesses under control regardless of who committed them. They will work day and night to meet citizens' needs.

Volunteer police train in Moadhamiyet a-Sham. Photo courtesy of Moadhamyet a-Sham Media Center.

Q: Why did you open the police station at this particular time? Is it related to the truce, and a stop to the bombing?

The main reason for establishing the station is the large number of besieged residents living in the city. During the truce, as the bombing stopped, thieves and criminals began to work, and residents experienced a number of thefts. It was necessary to put a stop to, and respond to, these criminals, so all of the relevant organizations located in the city decided, by consensus, to establish this police station under the supervision of the local council.

Q: Are all of the volunteers who join the training programs civilians, or are some fighters with the Free Syrian Army? How do the police duties differ from those of the FSA in the city?

We allowed everyone to join the police force, whether civilians or fighters with the FSA.

The duties of the police differ considerably from those of the FSA. The FSA is responsible for military missions, such as guarding the fronts and pushing back the enemy. As for the police, their mission is civilian in nature and occurs inside the borders of the city. They are responsible for solving problems between local residents.

As for capabilities, the police own all the elements of any police station in terms of prisons and offices. Of course they will have a station and checkpoints operative 24/7.

Q: Talk more about the training.

Training courses happen on a daily basis, and range from physical fitness to professional training. They enable the police to operate regular checkpoints day and night, and teach them how to storm thieves' dens and arrest them.

This batch of graduates its not the last. There will be a third group that will graduate in the coming days and that will be the last. After that, we will announce the beginning of police work at the station, after securing the agreement of those locals that remain in the city.

Q: Who supported this program monetarily? How have residents reacted?

The local council proposed and implemented the program without any material support from any organization. Residents provided moral support, seeing as we secured the agreement of around eight big families in the city, and more than 60 military leaders with their soldiers, and three brigades. The local council harnesses everything it has to provide logistical support.

Q: Did the rate of theft and felonies increase in Moadhamiyet after it was encircled?

Of course, it noticeably increased. The siege had a big impact on residents. For example, someone might say, 'I have children and don't have anything to feed them given the siege...so of course I'll steal.'

There is no longer a deterrent for people against crime, especially those who carry weapons. An estimated 45,000 civilians live in Moadhamiyet, and there are agents with the regime among us.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

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.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.