The Siege That Keeps A Rebel Town In Syria Desperate For Food Aid | KUOW News and Information

The Siege That Keeps A Rebel Town In Syria Desperate For Food Aid

Jul 12, 2016
Originally published on July 13, 2016 5:19 am

Imagine you've been hungry for the past four years. When the bombing isn't too bad, you can grow a little spinach and beans, and sometimes some smuggled lentils or rice get past the Syrian army checkpoints. But there's no milk for babies and your children have never seen a piece of fruit.

This kind of siege warfare sounds medieval, but in Syria, it is reality for hundreds of thousands of people. Most live in opposition areas, surrounded by Syrian government forces. And one of the most desperate places is Daraya, just to the southwest of the capital Damascus.

When the United Nations asked to deliver aid, President Bashar Assad's government repeatedly denied permission.

But as the circumstances grew increasingly grim this year, the government finally allowed aid to go to Daraya in May. Ravenous residents gathered to wait.

As local leader Shadi Matar explained in a Facebook call: "At the same time, [government] artillery shelling began in a very big way. Of course, it was targeting the people who had gathered to wait for the aid. That day, a man and his son were killed and about 10 people were wounded, including women and children."

The aid did not get in.

Activists say aid deliveries have also been accompanied by government bombs in other besieged areas.

Asking Permission

The U.N. doesn't deliver aid without permission from the Syrian government, and says most of its requests are denied. A Syrian government spokeswoman recently said that nobody in Daraya is starving, and that the area is known for its fertile land.

"Daraya is the food basket of Damascus. There's nobody starving in Daraya," spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban said from Syria, via Skype, to a news conference being held in Washington, D.C., in June. "The Syrian people can feed themselves."

However, the charity Doctors Without Borders says dozens of Syrians starved to death waiting for aid in the town of Madaya last year.

"We are acutely aware we are only alleviating suffering," said Jan Egeland, who is advising the humanitarian wing of the International Syria Support Group, a collection of international leaders trying to resolve the Syrian conflict. "Besiegement is continuing; it should never be there in the first place for civilians, neither in terms of blocking humanitarian assistance nor movement of civilians. It belongs in the Middle Ages, not in our time."

Some even say that by limiting or denying access, the Syrian government is using aid as a weapon.

"Aid is now used as a very effective tool by the regime, to control certain areas, to reward certain areas by allowing aid through and to punish other areas by laying siege on them and preventing aid from passing through," said Roger Hearn, who used to head a U.N. agency that assists the many Palestinian refugees in Syria.

Rebels Hold Off Government Forces

Daraya is a rebellious area, a conflict zone where rebels have faced off against government forces for four years. The fighters say they number 1,000, and that they are part of a moderate rebel alliance. They deny striking civilian areas of Damascus, though people close to the opposition, speaking anonymously out of concern for their security, said it is likely that they do.

But when the U.N. sent a fact-finding mission to Daraya in May, officials were followed around by crowds of hundreds of civilians — including malnourished women and children. The U.N. estimates there are at least 4,000 civilians still there. Residents and activists say it is 8,000. These are the few who remain from a city that numbered as many as 200,000 before an uprising was crushed in 2012.

The charity Save the Children also says it hears reports that children need medical help because years of living in dark basements under airstrikes is damaging their sight and hearing.

After the May aid convoy was turned back due to shelling, Daraya residents buried the dead and waited. Negotiations continued. Then, three vehicles with aid entered on June 9, but the community was underwhelmed.

"There was very little milk for the children. The vehicles weren't even full," said Matar, the local leader.

There was some food, but there were also tents, not necessary for people living in their basements. The assistance included plates and bowls, which residents already have. More aid came the next day, but by then there was a hail of regime bombardments.

"Of course, this discouraged families from emerging and coming to ask about the aid distribution. And the distribution team couldn't work," said Matar.

So the flour and rice and chickpeas stayed where they were for days, just inside the city, And the people of Daraya stayed hungry. Since then, residents say they have been hit with more than 500 of the crude weapons known as barrel bombs. After all those negotiations, Matar says Daraya got more kilograms of explosives than of aid.

This week, Syrian armed forces began a fresh assault on the area.

Alison Meuse contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Syria, hundreds of thousands of people live under siege as a fact of life. Most of them are in towns controlled by the opposition, surrounded by government forces. When the United Nations tries to deliver aid to these towns, the Syrian regime usually denies permission. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on one town in dire need of help.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Imagine you've been hungry for about four years. When the bombing isn't too bad, you can grow a little spinach and beans, so you eat that. And sometimes some smuggled lentils or rice get around the Syrian army checkpoints. But there's no milk for the babies, and small children have never seen a piece of fruit. That's how residents and aid workers describe the town of Daraya, outside Damascus. So when aid was finally allowed in in May this year, people gathered to wait for it. Local leader Shadi Matar explains what happened next.

SHADI MATAR: (Through interpreter) At the same time, artillery shelling began in a very big way. Of course, it was targeting the people who had gathered to wait for the aid. That day, a man and his son were killed and about 10 people were wounded, including women and children.

FORDHAM: The aid didn't get in. Activists say aid deliveries have also been accompanied with bombings in other besieged areas. And aside from those attacks, the assistance is usually limited and infrequent. The U.N. doesn't deliver aid without permission from the regime. Most of its requests are denied by a regime whose spokeswoman recently said that, quote, "the Syrian people can feed themselves." But the charity Doctors Without Borders says dozens have starved to death waiting for the aid in some areas. Here's Jan Egeland, who is advising the main humanitarian task force on Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAN EGELAND: Finally, we are acutely aware that we are only alleviating suffering. Besiegement is continuing. It should never have been there in the first place for civilians, neither in terms of blocking humanitarian assistance nor the movement of civilians. It belongs in the Middle Ages, not in our time.

FORDHAM: Some even say that by maintaining control over access, the regime is using aid as a weapon. This is Roger Hearn, who used to head a U.N. agency in Syria.

ROGER HEARN: Aid is now used as a very effective tool by the regime to control certain areas, to reward certain areas by allowing aid through and to punish other areas by laying siege on them and preventing aid from passing through.

FORDHAM: It certainly feels that way in Daraya, that town that's been besieged for four years. Now, Daraya is a rebellious place, a conflict zone. There are maybe 8,000 people there and many of them are rebel fighters, and they do likely hit civilian areas of Damascus. But the U.N. visited recently, and officials were followed around by crowds of hundreds of civilians, including malnourished women and children. A lot of those kids need medical help, too, because after years of living in dark basements under airstrikes, they're losing their sight and hearing.

After that aid convoy was turned back in May when they were shelled, they buried the dead and three weeks passed. Negotiations continued. Then three vehicles with aid entered. More aid came the next day, but by then there was a hail of regime bombardment. Again, community leader Matar.

MATAR: (Through interpreter) Of course, this discouraged families from emerging and coming to ask about the aid distribution, and the distribution team couldn't work.

FORDHAM: So the flour and rice and chickpeas stayed where they were for days. After all those negotiations, Matar says Daraya got more kilograms of explosives than of aid. This week, the Syrian army has been advancing on the town. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.