In March 2015, Victory Army rebels led by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham swept across and took control of most of Syria’s northern Idlib province. Residents in two Shiite towns in Idlib found themselves trapped, and then encircled, by advancing enemy lines.
An estimated 20,000 residents of the adjacent towns of al-Fuaa and Kafariya, approximately 7km northeast of Idlib city, have lived under blockade and bombs ever since.
During that time, rebel forces repeatedly used the towns to force the regime’s hand in negotiations.
A September 2015 reciprocal truce agreement signed by rebel forces and the regime ties the fates of al-Fuaa and Kafariya to regime-blockaded Zabadani and Madaya in Outer Damascus. Several parallel aid deliveries and evacuations of wounded civilians and fighters have taken place in the months since.
Violations of the truce are taking place on both sides. In al-Fuaa, rebel snipers cover 80 percent of the streets. “Daily life is essentially dead,” Khaled, a 30-year-old resident of al-Fuaa, who formerly worked as a builder, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.
“People spend most of their time in shelters, and only go out to get supplies.”
Q: How many civilians live inside al-Fuaa and Kafariya?
There are around 20,000 people left inside: around 13,000 in al-Fuaa and 7,000 in Kafariya. Most people work in agriculture, given the rural nature [of the towns]. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, around 3,000 people from al-Fuaa and Kafariya have died.
A child walks in al-Fuaa, an Idlib town blockaded by rebel forces. Photo courtesy of Shaher Basti.
Q: How are you getting by?
People are alive because nothing has killed them yet.
It’s hard to make a living. Nobody has work. In the springtime, people eat edible grasses. Currently, we’re cultivating some land very close by, out of range of the snipers.
The area of that land only covers a very small part of residents’ needs. The prices [of what is grown] are exorbitant, due to the cost of agriculture and shortage of water. We mostly eat rice and bulghur, which arrives by way of humanitarian aid.
There is a clear shortage of water after the only water tower in al-Fuaa was struck by the shells of hatred. This and the lack of needed mazot diesel has put the water pumping station out of service. People with private wells run their generators on oil, but the problem is that water is polluted—it’s meant for irrigation, not drinking. This has led to diarrhea, intestinal and urinary tract inflammation and kidney stones for most of the residents.
The people of al-Fuaa and Kafariya are living in a state of severe deprivation, without the minimum requirements for life, the most important of which are water, food and medicine. Our food is the aid brought in by the relevant authorities, or what we can find in the market—where it is rare and sells for the price of gold. We don’t have fruits or vegetables, have very few poultry products and the prices are continuously rising.
Q: Talk more about daily life in an encircled town.
Daily life is essentially dead. Because of the indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire—which covers 80 percent of the streets—and large caliber machine guns, people spend most of their time in the few shelters, which aren’t equipped for human use. They only go out to get supplies.
School is limited to a few hours in the morning, just reading and arithmetic using simple teaching supplies. There are no pens for the board, the books are old and tattered. There’s no glass to stop the cold from getting in, no light or heating.
Two schools are also out of service. One was destroyed by a car bomb during an attack on the town and the other has been converted into housing for the homeless.
There’s no normal life in al-Fuaa and Kafariya. We’re always rushing around. We go quickly to the market or wherever, fearing that an emergency could happen at any moment.
Only one side is abiding by the truce. The other side, the Victory Army, Ahrar a-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, don’t abide by it at all, and are continuing the indiscriminate bombardment on a daily basis.
Q: What about aid? How often has aid entered al-Fuaa and Kafariya, and from whom? Is it enough for the residents?
After a huge effort by international organizations, aid was delivered [in late 2015] to al-Fuaa and Kafariya, coinciding with a parallel delivery to Madaya and Zabadani. We’re now under the so-called al-Fuaa, Kafariya and Zabadani truce.
The aid is only enough for a few, and doesn’t contain what would be useful or compensate for the lack of fruits and vegetables, such as vitamins. It’s limited to rice, bulghur and dried legumes.
The first time aid came, one food parcel was distributed for every 10 people, and afterwards for one in every five people.
Each person gets one kilo of sugar, which has to last until the next delivery, 45 days or more. Otherwise, he has to buy it from the market, where the cost of one kilo of sugar is SP17,000 [approx. $78].
Aid has only arrived four times throughout the encirclement, a period of one year and three months. The first time it came was seven months after the siege began.
Residents aid a wounded Kafariya resident following rebel shelling in May. Photo courtesy of Shaher Basti.
Q: Over the past several months, a number of the sick and injured have been evacuated from al-Fuaa and Kafariya. Why is that necessary?
An estimated 700 sick and injured people have left, as part of the exchange agreement between al-Fuaa/Kafariya and Zabadani/Madaya.
We are suffering from a severe shortage of key medicines. We just have painkillers like paracetamol. There are no basic drugs for high blood pressure or heart disease, just a few rarely found alternatives.
Diabetics who need insulin are especially suffering from this shortage. Even if you find insulin here, it’s been damaged because of the lack of refrigeration. Some deaths have been recorded from hyperglycemia, as well as amputations due to diabetes and gangrene.
There’s no medicine to treat hepatitis, or even tests to diagnose which kind someone has. A number of cases have been registered, and this is a dangerous sign, because it could turn into an epidemic.
There’s no chemotherapy for people with cancer, and even if there were, there’s nobody to oversee the treatment.
We also don’t have some kinds of gauze and cotton. There’s a shortage of the mazot [fuel] needed for the only hospital.
Doctors don’t have supplies like CT scans, MRIs or even just an X-ray for emergencies. There are no doctors specialized in cardiology, neurology, optometry or gynecology. Just general and orthopedic surgery.
The medical lab lacks the materials needed for medical tests, and most of what we have is for basic tests and is expired. The laboratory team keeps it running, but there are no hormonal analyses or biopsies, etcetera. The microbiological cultures department is out of service because of the lack of available mazot to generate electricity, which hasn’t reached us since the siege began.
Many medical cases require evacuation and every day similar cases appear, from snipers or shell injuries to illnesses that come on suddenly due to malnutrition and the lack of medicine and healthcare.
Q: Are you under bombardment? How are people protecting themselves? Are there shelters?
Most buildings in al-Fuaa and Kafariya are a single story, without enough equipped shelters for everyone. The shelters are just rooms, not fit for human inhabitance. Some people whose houses have been destroyed by shells have moved into the schools. In short, we’re living in inhuman conditions.
Q: What are residents saying about the siege? Have there been demonstrations condemning it, and has there been any government response?
Our siege is the longest and harshest of its kind. People just want to get out of the two towns, no matter the cost.
The state is unable to help us with anything, even opening a humanitarian corridor, because of the self-importance of the factions that are besieging us. Those factions respond to any attempt by the state to support us with harsh strikes and heavy artillery—hellfire, elephant missiles and gas canisters.
Residents have called on the Syrian Arab Army to open the road by force, after seeing the international community’s sluggishness, how it hasn’t met our needs by breaking the siege and evacuating us. People have called on the government to take steps in order to mitigate the severity of the siege, but there hasn’t been a response.
More than 85 percent of al-Fuaa and Kafariya has been destroyed throughout the daily targeting by the Victory Army, Ahrar a-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa.
We’d like our voice to reach the whole international community. Why this silence towards us? Aren’t we people? Don’t we have women, children, the elderly, the sick? Don’t we have humanitarian needs? Where are the human rights? Where is the UN while this happens to us?
We want a response, we want justice for the besieged people of al-Fuaa and Kafariya.
Preparing a meal in al-Fuaa and Kafariya. Photo courtesy of Shaher Basti.
Q: What is an average day like in al-Fuaa for you and your family?
We wake up in the early morning, pray and begin our day by lighting a fire and making tea. We don’t have any sugar or wood right now. Even wood has become rare and expensive.
I go to the market, buy a kilo of squash for SP1,000 (approx. $4.55) and a tub of yogurt I reserved a week ago for SP2,500 ($11.37). Then comes the bakery, a kilo of flour for SP1,500 ($6.82), a kilo of salt for SP5,000 ($22.74). Then a cubic meter of water for SP10,000 ($45.48) and a carton of eggs for SP15,000 ($68.23).
Imagine, all of that while missiles rain down on us the whole day, the sniping doesn’t stop. What life are we living? How long will this misery continue?
Of course, most of the time we don’t have money to buy what we need, so we just buy water. We ration the aid we’ve received from the Red Crescent, which is not enough and which doesn’t include fruits and vegetables.
Q: How do you see your future and the future of your town? What do you hope for?
That’s a hard question. Right now, I don’t think about the future. There’s non-stop bombing, shelling and the continuous sniper attacks by the Victory Army which is besieging the town. We’re always ready and waiting for death.
If we have any chance for a life and a future, it won’t be in this patch of ground. This isn’t a desirable future.
My only hope is that the war will stop, that we’ll stay in our land and live in peace, like we did before 2011.
Q: The Victory Army regularly bombards al-Fuaa and Kafariya in what it calls retaliation for government bombings of rebel-held cities elsewhere in Syria, most recently Idlib city. How do you view these practices? What would you say to those blockading and bombarding you, if you could?
The Victory Army and Ahrar a-Sham’s bombing as a response to the Syrian government targeting areas those factions control—so they say—is nothing but proof of their weakness in facing the government and Syrian army militarily. It proves they are blundering. They are dealing with the residents of al-Fuaa and Kafariya as hostages. This contradicts the ethics of symmetrical warfare.
My message to them: You, who claim you are defending the Syrian people and responding to its oppression, aren’t we part of the Syrian people?
You, who claim Islam and who are trying to spread your influence in its name, wasn’t it mentioned [in the Qur’an]: No bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden.
What is the fault of the peaceful residents—children, women, the elderly and others—that you are taking revenge on us?
You, who shed crocodile tears in the international forums so the nations will protect you, what do you know of humanity?
Q: You’ve said you feel let down by the international community, and that your calls for assistance are going unheard. When we talk to residents of other blockaded areas in Syria (Darayya, Madaya, etcetera), they say similar things. When you look towards other blockaded cities and towns in Syria—whether rebel- or regime-held—do you feel a sense of solidarity with them?
I am against the siege and starvation of civilians in any part of Syria. This war has proven that it is a war of international interests, and all of the parties don’t take civilians into account. They don’t care about people’s lives.
When opposition factions infiltrate densely populated areas and terrorize people with armed force, practicing their military activities, they are the ones using civilians as shields, they are the ones causing the blockade.
I am in solidarity with all of the blockaded areas in Syria, like Deir e-Zor, Aleppo, Zabadani and Madaya. I call on everybody to agree on a purely political solution, to spare civilians from the consequences of this war.