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Day 23: North Homs activists protest Waer blockade with hunger strike

Early last month, a group of 13 north Homs activists […]

Early last month, a group of 13 north Homs activists and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters began a hunger strike to protest the regime’s encirclement of the rebel-held neighborhood of Waer in Homs city. After 23 days, eight participants are left, with the others having dropped out due to “serious health reasons,” says hunger strike organizer Tarek Baderkhan.

“Through this strike, we stand in solidarity with our brothers in Waer. We know what it means to be hungry,” Baderkhan tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

The Syrian regime and its allies have encircled the rebel-held north Homs countryside for four years. While last month’s truce between the rebel Homs Sharia Court and regime representatives under Russian supervision allowed the free movement of goods to the northern countryside, much of this territory is still subject to aerial bombardment.

“There’s no pressure placed on the Assad regime, no repercussions. Nothing.” 

Regime forces first encircled Waer, the once affluent suburb northwest of Homs city, in 2014. Despite a UN-brokered truce in 2015, the regime’s siege continued. For the past two and a half months, no food or medicine was allowed into the neighborhood.

Hunger strikers in north Homs protest the regime’s blockade of Waer. Photo courtesy of Tarek Badrakhan. 

On Wednesday, June 1, some aid was allowed into Waer, amidst conflicting reports about how much. While pro-regime media reported that several aid convoys entered the town, pro-opposition news site Enab Baladi’s correspondent stated that “what entered was a few trucks carrying small quantities of bread and medicine.” The same source stated the bread was only enough for each resident to receive one piece.

While others have taken up arms, Baderkhan notes that the inspiration for his three-week-long hunger strike comes from nonviolent, Palestinian resistance culture.

“I’m not a fighter. I’m an activist, and my camera is my weapon.”

Q: What is the goal of the hunger strike? Who is participating, and when did it begin?

There are eight young men currently participating in the hunger strike, mostly activists with some members of the FSA. The strike began on May 10 after I extended a call to action through my Facebook page and got a substantial response. 

Through this strike, we stand in solidarity with our brothers in Waer. We know what it means to be hungry. We lived under siege in Old Homs for two years. Hunger is a child crying because there is no food. Hunger is a woman dying slowly before your eyes and you not being able to do a single thing. Standing with the people of Waer through this strike is the least that we can do.

What do we demand? We call for the end of the blockade of Waer and for the opening of humanitarian assistance to the neighborhood’s 100,000 residents. Our hunger strike will continue until these demands are met.

A hunger strike is a form of non violent resistance. The strike itself is not about abstaining from food. Rather, it is about bringing awareness to the international community about our plight and the total oppression that we face. Last week we called on all Syrians to join us in our hunger strike in solidarity with the people of Waer and all blockaded areas across the country. We have asked people to organize protests and demonstrations in front of embassies worldwide.

Q: What day of the hunger strike are you on?

As of June 2, we have entered the 23rd day of the hunger strike, and we are incredibly tired. There has been no word from the United Nations or the Etilaf, [Ed.: The Arabic name for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces] but still we call for help from every single humanitarian and relief organization out there. We ask for mercy for the women, children and elderly of Waer. We ask for somebody to save us.

Q: Where do you hope to take the hunger strike moving forward?

After the days of the hunger strike and still a lack of response from the United Nations, we decided to change course slightly. We created a video, calling on Syrians from every country of the world to join in the hunger strike or to organize protests in front embassies, criticizing the United Nations for their silence in the face of criminal starvation. Thankfully, there has been a meaningful response.

On this 23rd day of the hunger strike, the participants are emaciated. They have lost a lot of weight and are suffering from fatigue.

Unfortunately, some of the original 13 participants had to quit their strike because of serious health reasons. We currently stand at eight participants, including a new man from Turkey who is joining the hunger strike in solidarity with us.

Q: What do you ask of the United Nations?

This hunger strike is a show of disapproval against the United Nations, humanitarian organizations and all other organizations that have stood in silence throughout the blockade of Waer. We had to do something after [the head of the United Nations Special Envoy’s Office in Damascus] Khawla Mattar and [the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria] Yacoub El Hillo failed to keep their pledge to stand by international human rights accords, effective immediately. The regime’s suffocating blockade threatens Waer’s 100,000 residents. We will continue to bear the responsibility of taking care of our activists and fellow participants in the hunger strike until the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations finally meet our demands and lift this blockade.

Q: What do you think of the lack of response to your demands from the United Nations and the Etilaf?

Khawla Mattar and Yacoub El Hillo promised to lift this blockade, to get food and medical aid into Waer and to evacuate the city’s most injured. However, as the regime continues to starve Waer, like they did to Madaya and the Yarmouk camp, these two stand by silently watching. There’s no pressure placed on the Assad regime, no repercussions. Nothing.

Q: Why have you chosen to protest the regime through a hunger strike? Is it not more effective to take up arms?

We hope that such a strike will grab the world’s attention. We hope that it will shine a light on the plight of Waer, through which we can place greater pressure on the international community to bring about change.

I’m not a fighter. I’m an activist, and my camera is my weapon.

Q: What inspired the idea of a hunger strike?

We were inspired by our Palestinian brothers who have stood against Israeli occupation through hunger strikes. Samer al-Issawi was on a hunger strike for 225 days, the second longest strike ever, before he finally achieved his demands and was released from prison. Mohammed al-Qayq, similarly, was on a hunger strike for 95 days before he was finally released from prison.

Like in Palestine, we too face an occupier; however, here, our enemy is the 21st century’s most infamous mass murderer. 

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