“Who among us, upon remembering what he’s been through when this staggering ordeal is over, would believe that this was his lived experience?! What we have been through would have been imaginable to us in the past, and it is not true that worse things won’t happen to us.”
Perhaps it is difficult for any person not to repress his pain, or even hide from himself the extent of his humiliation that he abhors. It is true that the siege on Damascus suburbs is ongoing, but the summer season when the engineer Adel Darwish (the head of the local council in the two of Jisreen) spoke the words yields plenty of crops in the lands of Eastern Ghouta. For that reason, the weight of the siege was easier to bear than in the winter. The blockade had begun with the onset of winter, and no one could have anticipated what we would need when the siege went into effect.
And for those who do not know - or know- what happened in eastern Ghouta:
The Syrian people rebelled against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The latter had inherited power from his father after more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family. The revolution was modeled on the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain which sought democracy and some of which went as far as to achieve it. The revolution was peaceful in its first months. During that time, thousands of martyrs fell; Hamza al-Khateeb 1, Ghyath Matar 2, Meshal al-Tammo 3, Maan Awdat 4 and countless peaceful revolutionaries...With the failure of the international community to take a serious and effective stand to end this tyrannical rule, the people were left with no other choice but to resort to the right of self-defense. So many revolutionaries armed themselves and were able to liberate a lot of areas. And as the regime continued to wage its war on the people, some powerful and regional countries with interests in Syria managed to become key players in the course of the Syrian revolution. Many revolutionaries became beholden to the decisions of those countries when the latter started funding their military operations which were no longer possible without the support of those countries. In addition, other countries were backing the Assad regime, which had besieged many liberated areas, by sending logistical support and militias. And as the war went on and the Syrian people found themselves exposed to crimes against humanity on a daily basis, the most virulent and fundamentalist discourses gained in popularity among the people who had embraced the revolution when they saw themselves standing alone and alienated from everything they hear on the news regarding human rights, freedom and dignity.
Some liberated areas were already being subjected to bombardment and daily death when, after the siege on Ghouta and other areas, they found themselves also dealing with a scarcity, and sometimes complete lack, of necessary basic supplies. None of the necessities of life were readily available anymore- neither water, nor food, nor medicine, nor fuel, nor electricity and not even air which the Assad regime had repeatedly filled with chemical gases.
Who among those besieged would have believed that he would live through all those horrors? Thousands of martyrs, thousands of wounded, hundreds of thousands of starved people and thousands of deprived children...Life was crushing and no one heard their moans.
Consider for a moment that one mother had to leave her two sons by a garbage container to be seen by passersby, another mother accidentally caused the death of her infant son when she ate soya bread because she could not find any alternatives and a crying mother was heard chanting “our soul and our blood, we sacrifice for you Bashar,” when she found herself unable to buy flour, which some charities sell at half the market price.
The Beginning of the Siege
It all started weeks before the Tamiko pharmaceutical factory in the town of Mleeha was liberated in October 2013. It appears that the Assad regime had been planning this siege at the beginning of winter after having managed, earlier in the spring, to cut off the supply lines between Ghouta and the liberated northern areas. Ghouta did not have any open roads left except that connecting it to regime-held areas; those roads that the regime had preferred to keep functional until the moment the siege went into effect.
The liberation of the Tamiko factory had been the rebels’ aim for months, but this goal acquired a certain urgency when they became aware of the disastrous siege and the necessity of advancing toward Damascus. This made the regime even more conscientious about reinforcing the siege and preventing any smuggling operations via its corrupt soldiers. After around of week of the factory’s liberation, and the regime lobbing thousands of shells at Ghouta in retaliation, food prices started doubling until they completely disappeared from the markets. If one walked around, with pockets filled with money, in search of something to eat, he wouldn’t have found a loaf of bread, a handful of rice, bulgur or lentil or any sugar or oil. All sellers and traders opted to take whatever was left of their products off the shelves in order to dramatically increase their value after a few weeks. Gloom has taken over everyone and there is talk of “traitorous businessmen” and nervous anticipation of what is yet to come. And the rebels who have liberated the Tamico factory after everyone had thought it was an impenetrable fortress have not been blamed yet.
Suddenly, stalls selling Qamar el-deen (a sweet drink made from dried apricots) started appearing, and they began to multiply until there was one in every street. And even though there had been a tenfold increase in prices since the embargo, the Qamar el-deen was a Godsend for many people who had been starving.
The Ghouta of Damascus- specifically the town of Erbeen- is famous for its Qamar el-Deen industry. It is made from the abundant crops of apricots there which can be stored without refrigeration. Rebels prevented these goods from reaching regime-held aras, thinking at the time that they were the ones encircling the regime and tightening the siege on it. They even considered, before the blockade went into effect, preventing all milk products from reaching regime-held areas. But since huge quantities of these products were produced in Ghouta and could not be refrigerated due to electricity cuts by the regime, this would have caused great losses to farmers and milk manufacturers. So, instead, they contented themselves with consuming 20% of the milk supplies and sent the other 80% to Damascus- a quantity which meets the needs of three-quarters of its residents.
What compounded the crisis was not anticipating the possibility of its occurrence. Everyone had been under the impression that the fall of the regime was imminent after rebels had made some advances, even though the advances had been slow. People thought that the regime’s collapse was inevitable and that rebels would soon be upon Abbasiyeen square in Damascus, in addition to what we mentioned above namely that the rebels thought they were the ones besieging the regime at the time.
After a while, reasonable quantities of staple products such as rice, sugar, bulgur, lentils, oil and pasta became available again. But prices were exorbitant and unaffordable for residents. The price of a kilogram of sugar reached 3,800 Syrian pounds (around $24, more than 25 times the old price). The prices of other food staples were in that range as well. One loaf of bread cost 300 Syrian pounds (around $2, 150 times what it used to cost). Most people refrained from buying sugar, bread and rice and they managed with bulgur, lentils and oil. They substituted sugar with commercial alternatives such as what is known locally as Sukareen and fructose syrup which some doctors said are “acetoacetic acid derivatives that can cause psychological issues which we can do without, and it can also cause malignant tumors .”
Many people would have to walk very long distances to obtain the food they wanted since a liter of gasoline had reached the price of 10,000 Syrian Pounds ($62) and a liter of diesel ost 6,000 ($37). Some would walk for several hours to reach an area where, they heard, a kilogram of bulgur cost 100 Syrian pounds less than in their town. And some walked for hours in order to secure a liter of milk for their children. There were no eggs at all to be found anywhere.
The situation became so dire that some people ventured outside at night in freezing temperatures to gather radish leaves, spinach, hibiscus and cook them. Sub-zero temperatures did not dissuade people from going to agricultural lands without owners to gather the hibiscus and spinach leaves that grow on their own. Broccoli became a part of daily diet. Cabbage as well which became a substitute for bread; the price of one small cabbage reached 500 Syrian Pounds ($3.1) and a big one would cost 1500 Syrian Pounds ($9.2). Pickles were even sweetened and cooked!
A lot of people became so desperate that they started eating animal feed. The prices of barley flour, corn flour, millet flour and soy flour doubled. Doctors (or rather, the few doctors left in Ghouta) warn against eating the last one. People tried to bake bread at home but they lacked the necessary equipment and expertise. Despite the difficult of baking bread with corn, millet or soy flour, those who were able to make a lumpy palm-sized loaf were deliriously happy! Soy flour was not taken off the market until there were several cases of children who died after consuming it.
However, the biggest disaster was when they started selling the low-quality dates that are made into fodder. Despite its bad taste, people were eager to consume it. While it is not toxic, many got poisoning from it and some died as a result. It turned out that what caused the poisoning was the sewage overflow in the warehouses where it was stored and the business owners had been aware of that so the three of them were imprisoned.
Aside from death by poisoning, other horrors included death by starvation, death due to the lack of medicine and health care supplies and death by livestock feed when humans were forced to eat animal feed in order to survive. Children were falling to the ground on their way to school, the elderly were looking for their medicine to no avail and countless have died because of the lack of insulin and other drugs. And farmers cried because they could not feed their livestock as it perished in front of their eyes.
Farmers reverted to plowing their lands by hand. As a result, the amount of cultivated land decreased as it requires huge effort to do it without equipment and because there wasn’t enough fuel to water the earth. A few lucky people were able to drill compost pits which release methane and reduce the amount of fuel needed to run the water pumps. And when the farmers are done with their grueling daily work, they have to secure food for their families so they are burnt out at the end of the day.
Most people would go to bed hungry. They would content themselves with one meal or even half a meal a day. They only thought about how to procure enough food for the day, and left tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow. They all lost dozens of kilograms, they slept and did not talk much to each other. And when the children cried from hunger, their parents would tell them to go to sleep in order to get food the following morning as in all tales of famine.
Children and women’s suffering was the most acute. The children who were able to eat a cookie or a piece of chocolate once a week were considered the lucky ones. Small wrapped pieces of dried apricot for children abounded in the shops and roving street salesmen, selling very hard candies that most children do not even have the luxury of buying, became a common sight. The children were put to work; they were expected to fill buckets of water from the wells and carry them home because families were too poor to pay for home water delivery. The adults couldn’t do that task themselves because they were occupied with even harsher tasks. Women would wash clothes and carry out household chores by hand since there was no electricity. They cooked on wood stoves and cleaned the chimneys which had not been prepared for the use of firewood. The quality of the wood itself was rather bad. Women roamed from one place to another to collect food parcels from the various charities that had set up shop but could not cover even 1% of people’s nutritional needs. The majority of women could often be seen weeping at relief offices and clinics in order to secure milk or medication for their infant children. Many parents stopped sending their children to school because they couldn’t afford the expenses, and a lot of teachers who had continued to teach without receiving their salaries would talk about students’ inability to focus on their lessons because of their growling empty stomachs.
What’s interesting is that cigarettes, despite the twofold increase in prices, were only off the market for a few days, then they were soon allowed in from Damascus through regime checkpoints. Incensed clerics began to reprimand smokers at Friday prayers warning them that they are doing what the regime wants when they waste their money on something harmful to their health and anger God (smoking is considered a sin in Islam).
And even though the regime would open the checkpoints every now and then to allow in some goods with exorbitant prices, the quality of the merchandise was mostly bad and some would say: they’re dumping what is not selling in Damascus on us. We have become their trash cans!
People would break into abandoned homes just to take whatever there was left to eat so that many houses were left without doors. And no one blamed those who were known to have broken into a few homes. But there were also quite a few cases of theft- people stole objects in order to sell them. Theft had become a widespread phenomenon in Ghouta before the blockade because the fledgling police outposts had not imposed order yet. A large number of houses, shops, factories and farms were abandoned by their owners and money was tight, but perhaps what was most difficult to witness was that the situation became so dire the virtuous had to resort to stealing food. And those who refrained from stealing would mask their faces and slip out at night to collect whatever could be eaten from the garbage.
In conclusion, we should summarize the general conditions that accompanied famine and the difficulties of daily life. On the one hand, a lot of blame was heaped on armed battalions for failing to open the supply routes and entering Damascus. The blame would wane or increase depending on the intensity of the battles being waged. Military commanders were also accused of banditry and of wanting the dire situation to continue so that they can exploit it to their advantage. Thousands were killed in the battles that erupted in the area of al-Marj, as they tried to open the supply route, and they perished in Adra when they stormed it in order to try opening another supply route, and they died in Jobar which abuts the Abasiyeen square, and in Mleeha which overlooks Jaramana a town adjacent to Damascus. They were not able to accomplish any of those goals. That’s when the infighting started with some commanders calling others traitors. Ideological differences among Islamic groups 5 were thrown into sharp relief by the crisis and the infighting culminated in the battle between ISIS and the Army of Islam 6.
On the other hand, fundamentalist battalions abducted non-Islamist revolutionaries such as doctor Ahmad al-Biqai and a commander at the ‘Maghaweer forces’ at the time as well as two commanders from the military council whose warehouses they looted. The prominent secular activists Razan Zeitouneh, Samira al-Khaleel, Nathem al-Hamadi and Wael Hamadeh were also kidnapped and their whereabouts are still unknown despite solid evidence that points to fundamentalist groups according to the victims’ families.
There were also a number of attempts to assassinate civil activists and other military commanders the most significant of which was the successful assassination of Abu Adnan Fleetani who had Nasserite socialist inclinations.
When looking at the intensification of problems and infighting and the attacks on revolutionaries, we can’t but factor in the catastrophic circumstances that Eastern Ghouta was experiencing at the time. Thus it was easy for fundamentalist groups to find a receptive environment where they could justify their actions: people were experiencing daily shelling, famine, a harsh daily life and deprivation and, more importantly, those abroad were unable to do anything to end their tragedies. Furthermore, blame was heaped on those civil activists and militant rebels who were accused of “not seeking to please God” and “not raising the banner of the Islamic Caliphate with the slogan There is No God but God”. “Victory had been delayed because if them,” some would say.
The blockade is still in place until now, but the summer season and the crops it yielded have alleviated the suffering to a certain extent despite the fact that there is still daily shelling and circumstances are still difficult. People have become accustomed and can endure more now but there is no hiding the sense of gloom that has overtaken them with the approach of winter and the sufferings it will bring again.
This short history which describes the first winter in besieged Ghouta, in terms of the humanitarian situation mainly, is not just a warning about the imminent disaster that is about to strike again, but also a written document for future generations who might find in it useful material to portray one of the revolution’s stages in various art forms and paint their parents’ suffering for the sake of freedom.
- 1. Hamza al-Khatib (1997-2011) is a Syrian boy from the town of Jiza in Daraa. He was arrested by Syrian security forces at a checkpoint. His body was returned to his parents a few days later and it bore horrific torture marks. Millions of people were shaken when the images were shown on satellite channels.
- 2. Ghyath Matar (1985-2011) is a nonviolent political activist from the town of Daraya west of Damascus. He was active from the beginning of the Syrian revolution until he was detained by the Syrian security forces in an ambush. His pregnant wife received his body a few days later and it bore signs of extreme torture.
- 3. Mashaal Tammo (1957-2011) is a prominent Kurdish Syrian Democratic leader from the town of Hasakah in northeastern Syria. He was assassinated in October 2011 a few months after Syrian intelligence released him from custody.
- 4. Maan Awdat (1959- 2011) is a democratic Syrian activist from the town of Daraa and one of the leaders of the revolutionary movement there. He was assassinated in August 2011.
- 5. ‘The Islamic Union for the soldiers of the Levant’ is a militant Islamist organizations with Muslim Brotherhood links. It was established upon the merger of a number of military groups active in the Syrian capital and its surroundings such as the ‘battalions of Habib al-Mustafa’, ‘the brigades of the Sahabah’, ‘the battalions of Shabab al-Hadah’ and ‘ the brigade of Dar’ al-Asimah’. It is headed by Muhammad al-Fateh al-Qadri (an activist, fighter, Shar’ia scholar and the previous commander of ‘ the battalions of Shabab al-Hadah’).
- 6. The Army of Islam (The brigade of Islam previously) is a militant Salafi organization. The town of Douma in eastern Ghouta is considered its main stronghold. It was founded as “Suriyat al-Islam” in September 2011 under the leadership of former Jihadists Zahran Alloush. There is a lot of evidence that points to him having a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia. He joined the Islamic Front at the end of 2013 (a loose umbrella term for a group that includes the strongest Salafi non-Jihadist organizations in Syria).