October 29, 2013
Citizens of Moadimiyet e-Sham are being evacuated Tuesday from the blockaded southwestern Damascus suburb which has been cut off from humanitarian aid for more than 300 days. Known as the “starving suburb,” many citizens of the town are surviving on olives, and videos have surfaced of them eating leaves.
Mother Agnes Miriam, a Lebanese nun who has lived in Syria for years, is leading the evacuation with the assistance of the International Committee of the Red Crescent, the only international humanitarian organization with permission from the Assad regime to operate inside Syria. Miriam is an outspoken Assad supporter and ardent denier of regime complicity in the August chemical attacks in East Ghouta. The evacuation is the third in Moadimiyet e-Sham, where 90 percent of its homes have been destroyed, over the past month.
Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri spoke with Qusai Zakarya, a spokesperson for the Moadimiyet e-Sham Media Center. “No one can survive all this time on olives and leaves without starting to feel more pain than any person can handle,” Zakarya says. “Even a big guy like me.”
Before the war, Zakarya studied English translation and used to work at a hotel. He tells Syria Direct about his fears that evacuated citizens will fall into Assad’s detention centers, and how ongoing hunger haunts him more than his exposure to sarin gas.
Is an evacuation underway today? Who gets to leave? Where do they get to go to? How are they selected?
Right now we have managed to evacuate around 500 women and children, some adults over 50 years old and a couple of wounded civilians, including young men. We received guarantees from the priest Agnes Miriam, and also from the ICRC and Syrian Red Crescent. There was some gunfire in the air from the Assad that fell on some civilians during the evacuation. That was why we have not managed to evacuate a larger number.
Q: Are the people who are being evacuated now going to be safe?
As of now, we have no guarantees. During the previous evacuation, some civilians were arrested by the Syrian intelligence.
Q: Can you talk about Mother Agnes Miriam? Do the people of Moadimiyet e-Sham trust Agnes Miriam and the evacuation?
No one in Moadimiyet trusts Agnes Miriam, nor anyone else on this planet. I am talking about myself and the feelings I’m hearing from the people of the town.
It is ironic that we were forced to deliver our families to the Syrian government just to feed them. We have starved to death throughout the war. They have said since the beginning that they are friends of the Syrian people, they have kept on promising us that they would protect us, that they would bring in some food. They lied. We would have retained dignity and respect if they had brought in some food. We are humiliated that we have to evacuate our families to Assad forces.
Q: How did they tell you they had guarantees?
They told us that they had the word of Ali Mamluk, the head of the Syrian intelligence agency. They also got word form Janil Hasssan, a leader of Air Force Intelligence. They said no one would be harmed and that they would take good care of them. I am saying this to you with tears in my eyes. We have been expecting our families and the citizens of Moadimiyet to come back home, not to keep on leaving and be further displaced.
Q: Can you describe the situation in Moadimiyet over the last twenty-four hours? I understand there was other shelling and air force attack. What was the damage? Where are people sleeping?
In the last 24 hours the shelling has been normal. When I say normal I say the fourth division’s artillery has been raining heavy bombs on Moadimiyet e-Sham. Also the MiG fighter planes did an air raid in the morning. Last night there was an attempt to invade the town.
But hunger is what is keeping people from sleeping. People have gotten used to routine shelling, day after day. You’re walking on the street and a bomb might fall near you. You might die or not, our minds have accepted that.
Q: What happened in previous evacuations?
Thee were three previous attempts to evacuate civilians. The first one was on the 12th of this month. We managed to evacuate 800 people, just children under 14, women, and some elderly over 60 years old. We know 10 children were arrested by intelligence, and the intelligence beat the crap out of them. One of them was a kid with special needs. They were asking them about the FSA and the names of the activists in the town. The next day we managed to evacuate around 12,000 women and children. They were robbed by the Assad intelligence, especially the women. All the money, jewelry and telephones were stolen.
A video posted online by the Moadimiyet Media Center shows citizens evacuating Moadimiyet el-Sham Tuesday.
You said there were three evacuations?
The second was on the 13th, the third was on the 16th or the 17th. Since the chemical attacks I am having some trouble with my memory.
On the third evacuation, women were robbed, five children were arrested. We know for sure the numbers are higher than that, from some contacts we have inside the regime. We were trying to evacuate around 2,000 women and children, and we had the guarantees of Sister Miriam and the ICRC. The minute they arrived at the evacuation point, Assad forces bombed the civilians. Women and children lay on the ground only a few meters away the from the Committee [of the Red Crescent]. They just drove their vehicles away.
Q: We have heard that some aid has been delivered to Moadimiyet? Have you received any food or supplies?
Nothing has been delivered. I assure you, I give you my word as a man, not a single piece of bread has been delivered to Moadimiyet in 11 months.
Q: What will happen next in your community? Is the regime trying to enter Moadimiyet, or just trying to kill the people there, or evacuate everyone so only the FSA is left?
Let’s be crystal clear about this. Assad has been trying so hard to enter the town. On August 21st, he bombed with sarin gas. He has shelled Moadimiyet e-Sham with 2,000 land missiles and bombs, and over 13 MiG raids over the town. He has had his special forces, dressed in chemical gear, invade.
Q: What about the FSA? What is happening right now inside Moadimiyet?
Over 90 percent of the FSA fighters in Moadimiyet are local young men who sold their houses or cars to buy AK 47s or some light arms just to defend our civil demonstrations.
It is very clear for anyone who can read between the lines that Bashar al-Assad is executing an organized policy to starve, bomb and then evacuate and displace the village, to change the demographics inside the rebel towns. He’s doing this in Moadimiyet, in Homs, everywhere inside Syria. This is a crime against humanity. It is even worse than using sarin gas.
I was exposed to sarin gas. The doctor told me I would die. He left me for over 30 minutes with dead people. If it weren’t for my friends I would have been buried alive. The torture I am suffering from hunger is much worse than from sarin.
No one can survive all this time on olives and leaves without starting to feel more pain than any person can handle. Even a big guy like me.
Moadimeyet e-Sham lies southwest of Damascus.
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