February 26, 2014
Rebels and regime troops in the “starving suburb” of Moadimiyet e-Sham reached a ceasefire agreement that would open a humanitarian corridor into the encircled town as long as both sides adhered to it.
The respite came nearly fifteen months after the East Ghouta town fell into FSA hands and was subsequently encircled by regime forces, with no food or medical aid allowed into or out of the city during that time. Moadimiyet e-Sham became known as the “starving suburb,” as residents survived on unripened olives and watery grass soup.
Since the tentative truce was reached, in which the regime would raise its flag over the town but it would remain in rebel hands, a number of Damascus suburbs have followed suit. In late January, humanitarian workers were entered the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus, where dozens had reportedly starved to death due to hunger. Meanwhile, the governor of Outer Damascus visited the rebel-held town of Babila after a ceasefire was reached on February 16th.
But a number of pro-opposition Syrians have repeatedly emphasized that the temporary agreements do not mark an advance for the Syrian government. Rather, they say, the government’s starvation tactics allow a brief reprieve, granting the regime a victory in the media only as most residents of encircled towns blame the regime for their plight, not the rebels.
Moadimiyet looks to be a cautionary tale: that humanitarian corridor built into the agreement closed on Wednesday following the death of a regime solider, Qusai Zakarya, the town’s most well-known activist, told Syria Direct’s Jacob Wirtschafter.
Moadimiyet e-Sham, February 2014. Photo courtesy of the Moadimiyet e-Sham LCC
Zakarya, one of the citizen journalists who brought the plight of Moadimiyet to the world, left Syria just days ago after receiving government assurances that he would not be harmed. Starvation “can destroy your mind, your hope and your beliefs,” Zakarya says from a neighboring country, about why residents of his town finally gave in to the regime.
Q: How did hunger in Moadamiya bring people together and how did it divide them?
There is something the entire world needs to know about Assad’s starvation weapon: it makes people helpless and thoughtless. After a while, starvation can destroy your mind, your hope and your beliefs, even before it destroys your body.
You just want it to end, no matter what or how. The regime uses starvation to turn, control and divide the people of the town.
Moadimiyet-a-Sham was one of the biggest setbacks for the Assad regime, because it is in a strategic place and is surrounded by its most powerful military divisions. The regime has tried to take control over it dozens of times. Of course, the biggest attempt was on August 21, 2013, when the Assad regime used weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons. Even then he wasn’t able to control it.
Most people of the town would never dream of settling for anything other than having the Assad regime going down, sending the criminals to justice and starting to build a new Syria that fits all, but eventually the Assad starvation weapon managed to change a lot of people’s beliefs.
At the end of the day, all they thought about was getting food and getting over their suffering and pain. That is what happened.
Q: Tell us about the day in December when the ceasefire went into effect and food was finally allowed in to the roughly 8,000 people remaining in the town?
The amount brought in was almost three tons of rice, sugar and bread and some canned food. The scene was sad and heartbreaking to see people gathering in the streets waiting to see food after 15 months of siege and they were disappointed.
Each person got 200 grams of rice, 100 grams of sugar and one and a half pieces of bread. After 15 months of siege, the priority of canned food went to women and children. For the sick people in the town, it was really disappointing to see so little after so much time.
Q: What can you tell us about Moadimiyet today? What is the situation there after the truce?
In the last three days, the regime has shut down the town again. They’ve stopped allowing people and food to enter because they want the FSA to hand over some or most of their weapons. I’m talking also about the light weapons. There has been some shelling, some attempts by some of their troops to sneak into the town. The situation is not stable and the truce might collapse at any second.
They allowed some of the workers and students to go out of the town. But there is a lot of tension in the air.
Q: You spoke out strongly about what you called the unfair conditions of the truce and you called for the breaking of the siege, can you explain the difference between what the regime offered and what you asked for?
When we launched the campaign to break the siege, our goal was to have food and medicine enter the town without any conditions, because no person on this planet deserves to die from hunger.
But the regime used the starvation weapon to blackmail the rebels in the town, because they know we have responsibilities when it comes to the civilians in the town. They gave us nothing, except agreeing to the so-called truce, with its humiliating conditions.
But because the world has stood still during the past three years of the Syrian revolution, again we have found ourselves on our own to adjust to this terrifying reality. That’s why we said yes to raising the regime flag over our town, handing over one of the armored trucks that we won from the regime during previous battles and sending over a hundred people to have their security profiles settled at the Fourth Division.
We also accepted the idea of talking face to face with the regime, who have been killing us during the past three years. But again, we have responsibilities to fulfill to the people in the town. Our demands were very simple, just to have food and medicine entering through the town without any conditions.
But eventually and unfortunately the regime had the upper hand because it has all the big guns and controls the roads and food as well.
Q: Have rebels surrendered weapons? Has your view on surrendering weapons changed?
We handed over about 20 AK 47s, most of which were not working, in return for a shipment of food. But we cannot accept handing over weapons because they are the only guarantee of our safety. The regime has all the big guns and nobody asked them to hand over their tanks, MiG fighters, missiles. So how come when it comes to us, the main condition of the truce is to hand over our weapons?
The Fourth Division was responsible for negotiations in Moadimiyet and the truce as well. They sent the External Committee, which contains people from Moadimiyet who live outside the town, some of whom have good relationships with the Assad regime. They are responsible for communicating with the local council and our internal negotiation committee.
There were some highlighted lines that the Assad regime said like, “No one is going to win. We are not going to win and you are not going to win. We are both going to lose and we should think about the future. And we should stop thinking about the past. Because we are eventually both going to lose and destroy what is left of Syria.”
This came from high-profile officers in the Fourth Division. They are Alawites.
Q: The battle continues in Qalamoun. How is that connected to ceasefires in the Damascus suburbs?
One of the serious problems we have to deal with in the Syrian revolution is the lack of leaders. We haven’t managed to find trusted leaders; we lack a high-profile revolutionary to lead the rebels from the inside. We all used to look up to Abdel Qader Saleh, the Liwa Tawhid commander who passed away in Aleppo. [Abdel Qader Saleh was killed by a Syrian government air strike in December]. Most of the rebels across Syria trusted him. He might have been a leader, especially at this moment.
Now the regime is working on every city and neighborhood one at a time. Rebel conditions in Moadimiya are different than FSA conditions in Qalamoun. We were under terrible siege for 15 months and there was starvation. We were completely surrounded on all sides. That led us to deal with the reality.
If we had a leader whom people approved and trusted, I believe our conditions would be much better.
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