Since torture and killing have proved insufficient to quell the uprising in Syria, the two parties in the war have targeted people’s livelihood – and have been starving each other in many areas. The government imposes blockades to starve those in areas that it cannot bring down, while the opposition groups starve pro-government civilians living under their control.
The besieged areas are scattered all over the country, from the country’s northeast to its south. People in besieged areas have been trying different ways to break the blockades. Some have turned to primitive methods for generating energy and growing food. Others have come up with innovations – for example, making cooking gas out of recycled garbage or generating electricity using solar energy. Food only gets into these areas through tunnels controlled by armed factions, like in Eastern Ghouta, and people are forced to rely on produce grown on their own lands.
For three years now, many areas in rural Damascus, like Darayya and Eastern Ghouta, have been under a very tight blockade that has caused prices to soar as much as 25 times higher than prices in Damascus. The goods smuggled into these areas reach extremely inflated prices – 2lb (1kg) of sugar, for example, now costs 2,500 Syrian pounds. According to some activists, opposition and relief committees in Ghouta were found to be behind the rise in prices. The activists have also pointed out that the prices have suddenly dropped recently due to the efforts of officials and civil committees in regulating the goods and the petroleum products entering Ghouta.
Muhammad Abu Adi, a spokesman for Al-Rahman corps in Ghouta, said that the drop in prices came when a group of stores finally agreed to lower their prices, which, in turn, forced other stores to also lower prices in order to compete.
The prices in Ghouta rapidly fluctuate every time news – or even rumors – spread out regarding new goods coming onto the market. In November 2014, for example, the price of sugar soared from 400 Syrian pounds to 1,000 in the course of three hours.
Prices dropped immediately in Ghouta when news of the 15-day ceasefire spread, although it later turned out that the agreement was never implemented.
Darayya, the largest city in western rural Damascus and formerly home to 250,000 families, also suffers from a very tight blockade. The situation in Darayya is very similar to that in Eastern Ghouta, and despite the many battles and the many times it has been announced that the blockade has been lifted, practically speaking the area has been under a blockade for three years. Darayya is now left with no more than 1,000 families who spend most of their times in shelters, due to the constant heavy bombing of the city.
People in Darayya have been relying on what they can grow on their own lands. According to a member on the city council nearly every family relies on a small piece of land on which they plant wheat and vegetables like chard and spinach. But this does not mean that the city can sustain itself, since there are critically needed items that people cannot secure, such as medical equipment and medicine.
Since early last year, Darayya has also been suffering from a lack of electricity, water and means of communication. The lack of water has often forced people to rely on wells that provide water that is not fit for human use.
Halfway through last year, the media center in Darayya issued a 1,000 Syrian pound note in an attempt to draw attention to the city, which had then been under siege for 1,000 days. They sought to put a spotlight on the city’s 10,000 people, who had been suffering from all kinds of hardship. The use of the bill was also meant to criticize the international community for understanding only the language of money and national interests.
The location of Darayya is strategic – it is less than 4.5 miles (7km) from the presidential palace, where the Syrian president resides, and only 2km (just over a mile) from the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, which is located in in the Kafar Souseh neighborhood, in the southwest sector of Damascus. Additionally, the Mazzeh military airport, one of the most important military airports in Syria, is just outside the northern borders of the city.
It seems that in duration and intensity the siege in Wadi Barada is less burdensome than those in Eastern Ghouta and Daryya. According to the area’s media center, the siege has been in place only for around 100 days. Government forces block all roads to Wadi Barada, except for the Sheikh Zaied road, on which only workers and students are allowed to travel to and from Damascus. Each commuter can bring in 6.6lb (3kg) of food and seven loaves of bread. The officers at the checkpoints confiscate everything that’s in excess of these limits, while local stores are out of goods. Bakeries have no flour and all pharmacies are closed due to the lack of medicines, including those for critical conditions like heart disease, blood pressure and diabetes.
As for means of communication, only 40 percent of cellphones receive service and no 3G service is available, though landlines still work.
Wadi Barada consists of 150,000 people who live under very harsh conditions, especially during winter. Most of them have no fuel to burn and lack any other sources of heat.
Zabadani, Kafraya and Fuaa
Despite the geographical distance between Zabadani, in Damascus, which is controlled by the opposition, and Kafraya and Fuaa, in Idlib, controlled by the government, they share one thing in common: an agreement signed between Jaish al-Fateh [Army of the Conquest] and an Iranian delegation under the sponsorship of the United Nations. The agreement requires a halt to military operations in the towns of Zabadani, Kafraya and Fuaa. It also calls for the relocation of all fighters from Zabadani to Idlib, and the evacuation of all wounded people, in addition to 10,000 women, children and old people from Fuaa and Kafraya, areas that had been besieged by the opposition group Jaish al-Islam [Army of Islam]. However, not one of the agreement’s articles has been enforced except for the ceasefire.
According to the Zabadani coordination committee, out of 35,000 people (the original population of the city), only 965 people remain – and those are besieged in three neighborhoods. Since February 2012 the Syrian government’s army has installed checkpoints around Zabadani, backed by tanks, artillery and heavy weapons. The city is bombed on a regular basis. Residents can even set their watches by the timing of the bombing, which has not stopped for one day over the last four years – except during the times of truces, which the government always violated. According to the committee, the government also blocked food or medicine from entering the city and then forced the residents who had taken shelter in the nearby town of Bloudan to move to the towns of Madaya and Biqqeen, which were later viciously bombed.
When government forces, supported by members of Hezbollah, failed to penetrate the defense lines of the armed factions, they plowed and burned the agricultural lands in the plains around Zabadani and cut off the only supply route for the opposition factions.
The negotiations between Ahrar al-Sham [Liberators of the Levant] and Iran started after Jaish al-Fateh had attacked the two pro-government towns of Kafraya and Fuaa. Iran and Ahrar al-Sham agreed on a ceasefire there in an exchange for a ceasefire in Zabadani. However, the fighting began again because of some sections in the agreement that the people of Zabadani considered unfair. Finally, on Sep, 24, 2015, the two parties reached an agreement that requires a ceasefire, the evacuation of all armed factions and the wounded out of Zabadani to Idlib, and the entry of food and human aid to Madaya and Biqqeen. But at the time of writing no one has left Zabadani, and humanitarian aid has entered Zabadani, Madaya and Biqqeen only once – in October 2015.
Meanwhile, Madaya and Biqqeen have been receiving newly displaced families. An estimated 250 families have come from Bloudan, Mamoura, al-Shallah, Sirghaya, Rawda and Kroum Madaya. Including the new arrivals, the two cities now host 40,000 people who suffer from hunger and a lack of medical treatment and heat sources. Many deaths have been recorded among children and the elderly due to malnutrition, and – making the situation even worse – the United Nations sent expired biscuits to Madaya, which resulted in the poisoning of more than 200 people, mostly children. Although the U.N. acknowledged the incident, it considered what happened “not dangerous.”
Kafraya, Fuaa, Nubbul and al-Zahraa
The population of Kafraya is about 15,000 people, while Fuaa is home to approximately 35,000. The people of these two cities helped break the blockade that was imposed on pro-government residents of the cities of Nubbul and al-Zahraa in northern rural Aleppo, who also live under a blockade. Since these cities helped the Syrian government army against the opposition, the opposition in turn besieged Kafraya and Fuaa. The opposition cut off water, electricity, fuel and medicine, which forced many people to grow their own food. Although the Syrian government provided the cities with food and medicine via air drops, the aid sent was never enough to cover the needs of 50,000 people.
The pro-government cities of Nubbul and al-Zahraa are located 12.5 miles (20km) from Aleppo, and 25 miles (40km) from the Turkish border. The opposition factions cut off the Gaziantep road that connects the two cities to Aleppo and thus completely besieged these two cities as well. The residents manage to secure some of the goods they need from the city of Afrin to the northwest of Nubbul. The blockade forced many people in the cities to plant their own food, but they still cannot secure many basic crops such as rice and wheat. And although the government provides the cities with many needed items through air drops, much is still lacking.
Since the government has gained control over the Kweires military airport, it is expected that its troops will continue to advance to the southern parts of rural Aleppo and break the blockade of Kafraya and Fuaa.
The eastern countryside of Homs underwent a crippling blockade that forced people to grow their own food, taking advantage of irrigation available from the Orontes River that passes through their land. But the situation in Waar neighborhood, which has been under siege for two years, is the worst.
The population of the neighborhood increased from 50,000 people to 300,000 people in the spring of 2012, when the residents of the Old Quarters of Homs were displaced and moved to the Waar neighborhood. Since October 2013 the neighborhood has been under a siege imposed by the government.
From time to time negotiations between the U.N. , government forces and notable people from the neighborhood take place in an effort to get some food and other basic goods in. Activists reported that after long negotiations government forces recently allowed small cars containing vegetables, cheese and eggs to enter the neighborhood, but the quantities brought in can barely cover the needs of one street.
Early this year, the fighters of the Waar neighborhood formed a truce with the government, allowing for a ceasefire and the continuation of the siege with the exception of allowing limited amounts of food in.
The Justice Observatory for Life in Deir Ezzor reported that the government has been imposing a blockade on the neighborhoods under its control (Jura, Qusour, Hrabesh and Albgheiliya). The siege has been in place for ten months, ever since it stopped providing the neighborhoods with any food due to the fierce fighting that is taking place around the military airport. The lack of food forced people to rely on goods smuggled in from areas controlled by Islamic State, which led to a remarkable increase in prices. The government also forces civilians to pay about 100,000 Syrian pounds to leave by land and 300,000 to leave by air. Note that, for the last month, travel through the Deir Ezzor Airport has not been possible due to battles between the government and Islamic State.
There are only three working bakeries in the entire city (al-Gaz, Khaled ibn al-Walid and al-Dahiya). These bakeries distribute bread only to the security forces and to some brokers, while hundreds of civilians need bread for their survival. As for fuel, civilians rely on what the government provides, but fuel prices have soared to insane heights. Often besieged neighborhoods receive contaminated water due to the lack of chlorine. This happens while other neighborhoods, like al-Sijn and al-Tib streets in al-Joura neighborhood, get water only once a week.
Working hospitals in the besieged neighborhoods barely provide any services, and they only admit a very small number of people, while the military hospital does not admit civilians at all. The Observatory reported one case of starvation to death in Jura in October 2015.
Islamic State, on the other hand, has prohibited people in Deir Ezzor from traveling outside of the “state’s borders,” unless they take courses in Sharia Islamic law and prove that they passed them.
The sieges and famines imposed by the various fighting factions have led to the death of many people in many places in Syria, especially in Deir Ezzor and Eastern Ghouta. However, they have not succeeded in any way in bringing the war to an end.
The armed parties in conflict with each other do not care whether the blockades intensify or not. On the contrary, in fact – the siege actually means more profits for those in control of tunnels and checkpoints on both sides. The armed opposition factions and the government’s officers all profit from this imposed suffering.
This article was originally published by Suwar Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: A woman is helped by Red Crescent workers on her way from the rebel-held suburb of Moadamiyeh to government-held territory in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday Oct. 29, 2013. Nearly 2,000 residents of the besieged western Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh have fled their homes and have surrendered to the Syrian authorities after reports of starvation and disease triggered an international outcry for their help. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)