March 21, 2016

Above the government checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus someone has daubed in graffiti ‘Starve or Surrender’

Six Syrians share their experience of living under siege

On 15th March 2011 thousands of Syrians took to the streets to demand greater political rights and freedoms. Five years later up to half a million people have been killed and 12 million have been displaced; tens of thousands are in detention. But what about the rest; many are still inside Syria.

Ordinary Syrians weren’t prepared for the shutters to come down on their communities as they were placed under siege. They hadn’t put aside food or provisions since they had no idea of the restrictions that siege would bring to daily life.   

Sawsan lives in al Waer in the governorate of Homs: “The siege took hold almost overnight. I had gone to Damascus to look for my brother who had been arrested by the security forces. Two weeks later I hailed a taxi to get back home.  I couldn’t believe the driver’s response, he told me Al Waer had been cut off and civilians were unable to get in or out; only students were being exempted. When I got to the checkpoint I tried to pretend I was studying, it didn’t work. I had to sneak inside through a side road.” 

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Ossama was an underground activist in Damascus when the demonstrations started. Moving from one safe house to another to avoid arrest he decided to return to his hometown of Douma with his young family.  He explained that even basic necessities became unavailable overnight, “Prices skyrocketed, it was hard to comprehend the figures, even people with money couldn’t find anything to buy.”

Sawsan said, “We were without electricity for six months. Bread was almost impossible to find. Basics like milk and diapers were going for thousands of Syrian pounds. Government employees were able to get some food in and they became crafty businessmen selling commodities at vastly inflated prices. We nicknamed them ‘blood traders’ making a profit from others’ misery. People started selling their clothes and televisions just so they could to buy a litre of oil or a bag of diapers”.

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 The older generation have been hit the worst, Elias witnessed a sight he found profoundly shocking, “In the middle of the day, we saw an elderly man balancing on the edge of a dumpster and digging into his pocket for something. He casually got out a spoon. As we stood there transfixed he reached into the trash, opened a bag and started eating. He did this just so he wouldn’t have to ask for help.”

Access to medication has been an escalating problem. Communities like Daraya have been hit by up to 60 barrel bombs a day, but there is no medicine to treat the wounded or those with long-term medical conditions. Ossama explained that pharmacies are now empty and most trained medics gone, “Most experienced doctors left around a year ago. They just couldn’t go on working under these conditions. One of the children I used to teach was wounded in an airstrike and her hand was almost completely severed. Normally you would treat her but this takes time and drugs, both a limited resource. There are 20 other urgent cases to attend to, so for a doctor the easiest and quickest thing to do is amputate the hand to save the child’s life.”

Siham said that before the revolution she had been a spoilt and selfish twenty-something living a carefree life, but when other activists left she decided to stay on, “I want to give the kids a proper education so they’re not stuck with the hands they’ve been dealt.”

Children have been sexually abused when out on the streets looking for food. She explained, “One mother I know shaved her daughter’s head so she would look like a boy because that makes her less vulnerable when she’s begging alone”.

With the threat of starvation hanging over many families, Ayyat said some were marrying off their underaged daughters, “People just want to get rid of the burden of having to feed them. I know a 14-year-old girl who is now engaged. The girl is very shy is definitely not ready to be a wife and mother. I also know of a 13-year-old widowed mother.”

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Often it’s the smaller things people miss the most said Moataz. “After your home has been destroyed you go in to try and find a photograph to remind you of the way your life used to be. But you can’t find a single picture. I couldn’t even find my books or my bookshelves when I went back.”

At the beginning of the revolution, Syrians would greet UN workers with cheers but this has turned to disillusionment. “We feel like the UN has become complicit with the regime, forcing us to give up our revolution,” Bebars a former baker from Homs explained, “They are more focused on this than being a humanitarian organization.”

Sawsan agreed, “Do they think we started this uprising because we want some rice and lentils? We want to change the whole situation! They come here and bring us the odd bag of bulgur, but we want a definitive solution to the war.”

Many of the activists believe that the catalogue of atrocities committed against the civilian population should have been enough to move the international community to act against Bashar al Assad. “Now it’s all about Isis, Isis, Isis,” said Moataz, “When we started the revolution, we thought that the West and the US would act, but the regime represents stability and the status quo, and for the West this is better than uncertainty.”

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Ayyat warned that some people had been forced to join extremist groups, “Civilians who don’t believe in the jihadist ideologies are going to the front line to join them. They do this to provide for their families.  The only way to get a decent salary is by joining the war and fighting with an armed group.”

Reports of bombings, sieges, arbitrary imprisonment seem a long way off to the rest of the world but Ossama now views it differently, “For people outside Syria, this may be just a blur of news on TV but we see it happening in front of us every single day and it’s become our life.”

The photos in this piece are all taken in the town of Daraya and have been used with permission from the Daraya Local Council.