November 25, 2013
Aid groups and those sympathetic to rebels in Syria say the forces of dictator Bashar Assad are deliberately starving people to put down a rebellion.
AMMAN, Jordan: Qusai Zakarya is one of many Syrians who say they were caught in a tactic increasingly used by Syrian forces to starve a rebellion to death.
“The torture I am suffering from hunger is worse than what I suffered from sarin,” said Zakarya, referring to the poison gas he says he also escaped in a different attack.
“No one can survive all this time on olives and leaves without starting to feel more pain than any person can handle,” he said.
Zakarya lives in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Madimiyet e-Sham, and is one of many Syrians who say they were starved out of their country after more than two and a half years of civil war.
A scene from “starving suburb” Moadamiyet a-Sham in East Ghouta. Photo courtesy of the Moadamiyet a-Sham Media Center.
An estimated 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced by the fighting, and 2.2 million others have left the country altogether, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The agency estimates that 9.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent got into Zakarya’s town of Madimiyet e-Sham earlier this month. The group said it found hundreds of people in famine-like conditions it blamed on government blockades preventing food and supplies from entering.
“Even as chemical weapons inspectors enjoy unhindered access to some of the country’s most sensitive locations, U.N. humanitarian aid cannot reach civilians in besieged areas,” said the International Crisis Group in Brussels in a statement.
“This is true even only a few miles from the international organization’s offices in Damascus, where the regime deliberately and systematically starves people in a new tactic of modern war,” the statement said.
The coming winter will likely worsen the situation. In the far-northern Bab al-Salameh and Armeh refugee camps for internally displaced Syrians, rains have already flooded torn tents. Civilians are facing or soon will face a stark choice: leave their homes and join the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled to Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere, or risk starvation.
The situation has even brought back a disease that had long since been vanquished in Syria. Last month, the World Health Organization announced it had documented 10 cases of polio among children in the far eastern, opposition-held city of Deir e-Zor — the first polio outbreak in Syria in 14 years.
David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, said his organization has 300,000 doses of the polio vaccine ready but lacks confidence that his health workers can safely get to the affected areas.
“We are going back to the dark ages, really, when civilians were targeted — that’s happening — when aid workers are targeted, when there are religious edicts that it’s all right to eat cats and dogs because of the scale of the shortage of food, and now the return of polio,” he told the BBC.
Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, calls the overall humanitarian situation “a nightmare.” He said that both the regime and the many fractured rebel groups fighting it have adopted brutal methods that have led to widespread hunger.
“Both camps, but the Syrian regime to a greater extent, have used a tool called war of starvation,” he said.
“Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham, which subscribe to al-Qaeda ideology, have also been trying to starve areas under the government’s control in besieged Aleppo,” Gerges said. “They are very nasty.”
In the Damascus suburb of Qadisiya, Rama, 19, a college student who asked that her full name not be used out of fear for her safety, said she was on a bus boarded by a soldier who noticed a woman passenger in her 40s had a bag of bread.
“He pushed her and told her you can’t have bread, don’t you know you can’t enter with bread,” said Rama. The soldier took most of her bread.
Aid workers who lack official permission from the regime to bring food into besieged areas risk arrest.
“It’s getting increasingly difficult and increasingly hazardous for our workers there,” said Ayman Jundi, trustee and general secretary of Syria Relief, a charity based in the United Kingdom. “Any car that contains a relatively moderate to large amount of food supplies will not be allowed to enter those neighborhoods.”
In Homs, which has been under siege for more than a year by Assad forces, no food or humanitarian aid has been allowed to enter the al-Wa’er district since Oct. 8.
“The regime is trying to finalize its plans to displace from Homs what is left of the Sunnis, this is why the regime is targeting it,” said Homs-based activist Abu al-Feda.
Access to proper medical treatment is difficult in these areas because of shortages in medicines and supplies. Many children are being affected, say humanitarian aid groups and residents.
Feras, a 29-year-old former shopkeeper whose house was destroyed and who now works in Deir e-Zor in eastern Syria as a nurse, said civilians who are not fighting are being maimed and starved.
“Deir e-Zor is the richest province in producing oil and rice, in addition to water,” he said, not wanting his full name used. “All of these riches and the people are starving.”
Contributing: Singal reported from Berlin