Residents in the small Damascus suburb of Daraya, once the heart of uprising in the Syrian capital, are calling on the international community to take immediate action before a three-year government siege leads to deaths as a result of starvation.
Earlier this month, a group of 47 women in Daraya launched a media campaign to highlight the steadily deteriorating humanitarian situation, calling for an immediate end to the siege.
With the help of Women Now for Development, an NGO working to empower Syrian women inside and outside the country, and The Syria Campaign, a global independent advocacy group, the women published an open letter asking to be saved from what they describe as the Syrian government’s “policy of starvation.”
“We’re campaigning to avoid another Madaya; to avoid seeing people starving to death,” said Rahaf Habboub, a journalist from Daraya who assisted with the campaign, referring to a nearby besieged area of the capital where more than 30 people died late last year before international pressure brought aid convoys into the area.
Well known as a hotspot for some of the first popular protests against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, government forces surrounded Daraya in early 2012, forcing 95 per cent of its population to flee. The remaining population has been the target of repeated aerial and ground attacks, including the alleged use of chemical weapons.
Residents told Syria Deeply the remaining 8,300 people in the besieged suburb were quickly running out of food, medicine and drinking water.
Videos surfaced in March showing residents in Daraya, mostly children, holding signs that read: “We want biscuits,” “We want drinking water” and “8,300 people are being starved in Daraya.”
The letter put together by the women of Daraya was met with widespread international support, and organizers believed it would put enough pressure on the United Nations to urge Assad’s government to allow humanitarian aid into the area, and eventually lift the siege.
In mid-April, the U.N. sent a “fact-finding mission” into Daraya, the first time in over three years that a humanitarian convoy of any kind entered the besieged suburb. But contrary to popular expectations in the camp, the convoy didn’t bring in any aid.
“They came empty-handed,” said Nour al-Tal, a campaign organizer at Women Now for Development. “The children were so excited when we told them that someone was coming, they even thought they would get sweets and chocolate.”
To their disappointment, the residents received no humanitarian aid that day, and no promises of any, either. “They told us they can’t promise us anything, and that they would ‘try very hard’ to come back with aid,” said Shadi Mattar from Daraya’s Local Council Press Office.
According to Mattar, the Syrian government has held back any attempts at delivering aid into the suburb on the pretext that there are no civilians in the area, justifying its aerial and ground campaigns by repeatedly claiming that Daraya is controlled by al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate al-Nusra Front.
“The letter, the videos and the social media campaign were sent out to show the world that there are 8,300 civilians remaining in Daraya,” he added, “and that we have no al-Nusra presence.”
Daraya’s local council said the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating. There is currently only one field hospital, staffed by a group of volunteers, operating in the entire town. It lacks the necessary equipment to perform surgeries, and is also low on basic supplies like painkillers and gauze.
“We eventually had to go into abandoned homes and look for medicine, most of which was expired,” said Mattar.
As for food supplies, residents said they have almost completely run out of anything to eat, including rice, lentils and wheat. Mothers are reportedly boiling weeds and grass to feed their children, given the lack of baby formula and milk.
“Since the siege, residents in Daraya have been completely dependent on farming as a source of food,” Mattar said. “In its recent aerial campaign, the Syrian forces bombed farms, killing all the crops.”
But the initial setback with the fact-finding mission has not quashed organizers’ hopes. Habboub, the journalist from Daraya, said that now the word is out, she hoped the wheels were in motion for a much-needed aid convoy into the suburb.
“We know that not enough has been done yet, and we are frustrated about the stagnant response, but we are still working very hard to put enough pressure on the United Nations to quickly respond to the demands.”