The deaths of four residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus brought the total who have died from hunger in the camp to 73. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Last September, an 18-month-old girl named Rana starved to death in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya. Her mother, Um Bilal, had watched helplessly for months as her child grew thinner and thinner, unable to do anything to ease her suffering. She holds the international community and the Syrian regime equally responsible for her child’s death. “The whole world watches the crimes of this regime that murdered my child and does nothing,” she said.
Under siege by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad since November of 2012, Mouadamiya is subject to regular and completely indiscriminate bombardment with heavy artillery, mortars, and massive barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft. After more than a year of this, the town boasts almost no intact buildings and is getting extremely short on places to bury its dead. Despite all that has been thrown at it though, the people of Mouadamiya have, so far, refused to surrender their town.
Of all those who've suffered in Syria's bloody civil war, Mouadamiya has experienced some of the most calamitous bad luck. Much of this is down to geography; it's situated between Mezzeh Military air base to the east, the regime’s Republican Guard to the west and the elite fourth armored division (which is run by Assad’s brother and chief enforcer, Maher) to the south. This makes the town exceedingly easy to surround and choke off. Consequently, when the regime got bored of trying to retake the town from the various rebel battalions controlling it by direct assault and instead resorted to siege, the result was starvation.
The Syrian regime is employing similar tactics against other rebel-held Damascus suburbs and has been for close to a year now. Having tried and failed to take back these strategically vital areas for 15 months and having used everything in their arsenal—from tanks to fighter jets to a massive sarin gas attack on the 21st of August of last year—they are now resorting to simply starving their opponents to surrender or death.
The most recent and hardest hit victim of the weaponized famine in Syria has been the Palestinian refugee neighborhood of Yarmouk, on the southern outskirts of Damascus. For seven months, the town has been surrounded and subjected to the same treatment as Mouadamiya, with no fewer than 59 people starving to death as a result, according to Ahmed Awad of the Fajer Press Center. Horrible photos and videos depicting skeletal corpses seem to confirm Mr Awad’s claims and those of other residents. On January 26, three elderly women and two elderly men, all over the age of 65, became the most recent victims of the famine, according to Mr Awad.
“We have eaten almost all of the cats and now we are eating grass,” Mr Awad told me.
An agreement was reached on January 18 between the Assad regime and the leaders of the various Palestinian factions in Yarmouk that did—finally—allow food aid to reach the starving town. An initial delivery of 7,000 boxes of food and other humanitarian relief was allowed in on the condition that it be distributed by a pro-Assad Palestinian faction (the PFLP-GC) and only to civilians.
However, despite promises to allow in regular relief shipments, the regime quickly turned off the spigot following the initial delivery. According to spokesman Christopher Gunness, UNRWA (the UN agency providing aid to Palestinian refugees) has not been allowed to bring food into Yarmouk since January 22, despite attempting to do so every day. Gunness added that on the few occasions when UNRWA has been allowed to deliver aid, “the pace of distribution is so slow that it is defeating the humanitarian purpose of access”.
The original agreement followed a week in which the regime suffered an enormous PR black eye over the conditions in Yarmouk, with hundreds of damning stories emerging in the international press. It also comes four days before the scheduled start of peace talks in Geneva, for which the regime is eager to be seen as showing mercy from a position of strength.
Similar truces have been tried in other rebel-held areas of Damascus. In Mouadamiya, for example, a small food shipment was recently allowed in, in exchange for the ceremonial raising of the regime flag over the town for Syrian State TV to film. According to Abu Adnan al Hourani of the Green Military Engineering Battalion, the deal also required rebels in the town to hand over an armoured truck and some lighter weapons. “The regime is extorting the people of Mouadamiya in exchange for food,” he said. According to Qusai Zakarya of the local rebel council, the shipment amounted to one meal per person in the town. “Thank God, we are surviving, but we don’t know for how much longer,” he told me.
An earlier agreement with the regime in late November led to the evacuation of some 1,800 people from Mouadamiya. However some number of those—Reuters reported 230 military age males, while activists in Damascus say the number was much higher and included women and children—were promptly arrested by the feared Air Force Intelligence, who are still holding some of them. Of those not arrested, some have apparently fled to other marginally safer parts of Syria, while others are now refugees in neighbouring countries.
One of the biggest reasons for the continued survival of the 8,000 or so remaining residents of Mouadamiya (of a pre-war population of more than 50,000) and other besieged parts of the capital is corruption. One activist in Damascus who declined to be named for this article out of concerns for his personal safety, told me, “If it weren’t for some people with money who were able to bribe [regime] army officers to get a little food in, there would be dozens of people starving to death every day.” The same activist reported having often been shot at by pro-regime forces when attempting to deliver food to besieged areas.
Mr Zakarya claimed the provision of small amounts of aid was designed to turn residents against the regime’s opponents. “Assad wants to show people that he can give them food and security, if only they surrender,” Zakaraya. He added that, in some cases, the tactic was working.
Mouadamiya resident Abu Malik, whose family of six survives on one kilo (or 2.2 pounds) of rice per day, said that the recent food shipment into the town had caused black market food prices to fall by 90 percent. “Rice used to cost $22 per pound, but now it is closer to $4.50,” he reported. But Abu Malik added, he doesn’t expect the lower prices to last long. “That food shipment will only last maybe a week and then things will be back to normal,” he said. “Normal” in Mouadamiya means people will be dying of hunger on a regular basis.