March 24, 2016

Daraya: the town that shames the world

Syria’s heroes are eating grass to survive. Stand up for them.

This suburb of Damascus has been standing up for the rights of the oppressed for well over a decade. It has now been under starvation siege by the Assad regime for over three years and remains out of reach of the United Nations whose international staff sit a few minutes drive away in a luxury 7-star hotel.

For more than 1,000 days Daraya has been forgotten by the world. Send an urgent message to aid chiefs to break the siege on Daraya.

Here are 10 things about Daraya that everyone should know:

1. Its famous grapes will make your mouth water


Most of Daraya residents work in agriculture, where many cultivate luscious grapes that for Syrians have long become associated with the name of the town. Those still in Daraya have to survive on what little food they can grow locally since no food or international aid has been allowed into the area since 2012. Until a few months ago there was a smuggling route to an adjacent neighbourhood but this was cut off in February 2016.

2. Its residents have been standing up for the oppressed for years


Back in 2003, Daraya burst onto the scene in Syria with protests in solidarity with Palestinians being attacked by Israelis across the border in Jenin camp. Then with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, civil activism grew through organised and peaceful protests against the US-led war. Local campaigns to confront bribery and cleaner neighbourhoods also flourished under an Assad state that has for decades challenged any efforts at genuine civil society.

In short, Daraya’s political conscience was growing well before the uprising started in March 2011.

As a local woman going by the name of Hanan says:

“We were interested in political developments before the revolution. At home, my siblings, my father and I would have long drawn out discussions about the situation in the country, but these conversations would end as soon as we left the house. Everything was forbidden and subject to the iron grip of the intelligence.”

3. Church bells ring in solidarity with the revolution


When the peaceful and democratic uprising against four decades of Assad family dictatorship kicked off in March 2011, Daraya’s residents were always going to be a part of it.

As Hind Kabawat, one of the negotiators in the Geneva peace talks writes:

The church bells rang in Daraya in solidarity with the protesters. From their balconies in the narrow streets, Syrian Christians showered protesters below with rice and flowers. They marched hand in hand.

4. Little Gandhi: flowers to fight bullets


Ghiyath Matar, one of the many icons of Syria’s peaceful uprising, lived and worked in Daraya. The young father-to-be used to hand out flowers and water to the soldiers who were sent by the Assad regime to fire on peaceful protestors.

His steadfast commitment to non-violence earned him the nickname “Little Gandhi”, but it also meant he was targeted by regime’s security services.

A month shy of Ghiyath’s 25th birthday, a brother of a friend was coerced by the security services into make a phone call appealing to him for help. Ghiyath suspected it was a trap, but he went anyway. Four days later his body was returned to his family with bullet holes and suspected torture marks.

Perhaps suspecting the worst, Ghiyath gave a message to friends before he died:

“Remember me when you celebrate the fall of the regime and . . . remember that I gave my soul and my blood for that moment,” he wrote. “May God guide you on the road of peaceful struggle and grant you victory.”

Read: Washington Post: Ghiyath Matar’s death spurs grief, debate
Watch: trailer for Little Gandhi documentary

5. The medieval siege begins

In November 2011, the Assad regime decided it would seal the area hoping to starve the local populations of Daraya and neighbouring Moadamiyah into submission, which were connected by a thin strip of land:

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 18.20.07

In February of 2016, the two areas were broken apart and now Daraya is fully isolated and is under daily attack, despite the partial ceasefire that is supposed to be in place. Here is a map of Daraya today:


6. Witness a massacre. And sectarian propaganda

A year into the uprising, after countless arrests and disappearances of activists like Ghiyath, the Assad regime committed a massacre in Daraya.

As The Economist reported at the time, following days of shelling, regime forces sealed the town and went door-to-door executing men on the spot. More than 350 were killed in a week with 200 bodies discovered in a single day. There were reports of machine-gunning of women and children as well as decapitations.

The Assad regime tried its best to portray the violence as a sectarian conflict between the residents, hoping to stoke fear in the Christian community. Actually, it was the unity between groups that saved lives, according to Hind Kabawat:

As regime soldiers went door to door, searching for people to murder, it was the Christian community of Daraya that opened theirs to protect those fleeing the atrocities. One Catholic church treated the injured and prepared food for them.

7. Barrel bombs rain from the sky

Daraya has been one of the areas hardest hit by the Assad regime’s tactic of dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas. These improvised weapons, often old barrels stuffed with scrap metal and high explosive, are dropped miles up into the sky and tumble down on schools, hospitals and homes, often destroying whole blocks at a time.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Daraya was attacked with 330 barrel bombs in a two month period.

Here’s one dropped on the 25th of February this year:

8. Providing hope from hell


Since then, Daraya has created a local council that oversees the area. It is one of the few communities where civil administration controls the military factions, not the other way around. As one of the organisers said at the time:

“We cannot just say, ‘We want to topple the regime.’ We must make clear what the alternative is,” the organiser said. “From now on, instead of graffiti cursing the regime, our new slogans will be lessons. We will write the principles of our revolution – equality, law, non-sectarianism. We will offer a better vision of the future.”

Similarly, Razan Zeitouneh, an icon of Syria’s peaceful struggle for human rights and democracy, who herself was disappeared in December 2013, said the following about Daraya:

“Daraya was a star before the revolution and a star during. What the young men and women of the city built took immense efforts and resulted in a small exemplary model for the future of Syria, the one we dream of. The activism in the city never seized to amaze us for a minute. It was in Daraya where the peaceful protestors first carried roses and water to the soldiers of the Syrian army that persisted in killing them … In Daraya, the signs calling for co-existence continued to be held high even when the entire country was falling into despair following every new massacre.”

9. Shaming the world’s silence

According to the UN, some people in Daraya have been reduced to eating grass in order to survive. And yet, in spite of the starvation and the violence, the people of Daraya are still taking to the streets, demanding that the siege is lifted.

Watch this video of women and children calling for immediate aid access to their town.

10. You can help break the siege on Daraya

Right now the world’s most powerful countries have formed something called the Humanitarian Task Force to get aid into areas like Daraya. Despite more than a month of meetings, they still can’t seem to drive these aid trucks in. They’re waiting for bureaucratic permission from the Assad regime, something that successive UN resolutions say they don’t need.

Send an urgent email to the negotiators on that Task Force demanding they break the siege now. Together let’s stand with the brave people of Daraya.