Five years into the war, more than a million Syrians are suffering under siege, barred from leaving the areas in which they live, often cut off from food, water, electricity and medical supplies. Another 1.4 million Syrians are at risk of suffering the same fate.
Sieges have become an important tactic for players in the Syrian conflict, particularly the Syrian regime and its allies. While images of the emaciated residents of the besieged town of Madaya sparked outrage in January this year, independent monitor Siege Watch reports that not a single siege was lifted and that in many areas, conditions have even worsened.
Meet seven experts spreading news and analysis about the horrific conditions inside Syria’s besieged cities.
Syrian-Palestinian blogger, activist and researcher Salim Salama was born and raised in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Yarmouk has been held under siege by the Syrian army since July 2013 and has seen fierce fighting between militants. Once home to 200,000 people, an estimated 8,000 residents currently remain. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in the siege. Salama was forced to flee Syria in 2012 and now lives as a political refugee in Sweden, where he’s pursuing a degree in international migration and ethnic relations at Malmo University. He’s the director of the Palestinian League for Human Rights – Syria, a grassroots organization founded in Yarmouk in 2012, and frequently speaks out on the situation in the camp. Salama was appointed by the U.N. secretary-general as a member of the Advisory Group of Experts for the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security. He’s on Twitter@Salim_SYR.
& now I will keep talking and writing and shouting and documenting and researching and telling and re-telling of #Assad atrocities
— Salim Salamah (@Salim_SYR) October 4, 2016
Until one day I can dance to what I danced for once in 2011: the echo of my voice, or what blond writers I don’t know call: regime change
— Salim Salamah (@Salim_SYR) October 4, 2016
Yarmouk resident Abdullah al-Khateeb is wanted by both the Syrian regime and extremist groups and has survived multiple assassination attempts in recent years. Al-Khateeb, 27, is a cofounder of Palestinian League for Human Rights – Syria, and has made it his mission to document the living conditions in Yarmouk. He’s working on an account of life in the camp, mirroring the Forty Rules of Love by the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Rumi. Khateeb is also a human rights activist and has worked on urban farming projects and with services for children affected by the fighting. Khateeb was recently awarded Sweden’s prestigious Per Anger Prize.
Valerie Szybala is the director and cofounder of The Syria Institute, an independent research institution dedicated to advancing the public’s understanding of the situation in Syria and informing smarter policy options. Szybala left Syria after the spread of violence in 2011. Since then, she’s authored several reports related to besieged areas, including “Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities under Siege,” and “Assad Strikes Damascus.” Szybala currently leads Siege Watch, a project that provides ongoing monitoring of conditions in besieged communities. “The physical and psychological effects are overwhelming. There is no real way to describe the suffering. Everyone under siege has lost weight, and many people have died a very slow and gruesome death as a result of malnutrition and starvation,” Szybala told Syria Deeply. She’s on Twitter at @vszyb.
Marjolein Wijninckx is Mideast program manager at Pax, a Dutch peace organization and The Syria Institute’s partner in Siege Watch. Wijninckx joined Pax in 2000 and ran the organization’s office in Amman for more than a decade. Now focused on Syria and Lebanon, she runs Siege Watch research for Pax. “We are alarmed by the dramatic deterioration of the situation, which brings besieged communities to the point of collapse,” Wijninckx said when Siege Watch’s third quarterly report came out in July. “Despite international momentum to lift the sieges in June, conditions have only worsened for besieged communities.” She’s on Twitter at @paxmarjolein.
Ebrahem Abbass, a 27-year-old civil activist and independent journalist, lived in Madaya, a town located about 25 miles (40km) from Damascus; it has been besieged by Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters since July 2015. In January, images of emaciated residents of the town sparked outrage worldwide. (Deaths from malnutrition and starvation continue to be reported.) Abbass lived through the siege for nine months, before being forced to leave after a sniper shot him in the stomach. He’s in southern Turkey now, where he works for Amrha (Build It), a small NGO that has set up several projects in Madaya, including providing families with seeds to grow food at home. “There’s a lot of suffering, more than words can explain,” Abbass told Syria Deeply on Tuesday. Last week, one of his friends stepped on a landmine, but couldn’t be evacuated to Damascus for treatment. “It’s not just about food anymore. It’s about everything – schools, medicine, injuries, seniors who don’t receive special care. There’s no power, no diesel or fuel,” he added.
Mohamad Katoub is a dentist and medical worker from Douma, in Eastern Ghouta. The area has been under siege for the past four years and has recently seen a massive increase in fighting. More than 200 people are estimated to have lost their lives in the siege. From the first days of the uprising, Katoub worked in medical logistics – providing medical and emergency healthcare to patients suffering from starvation or those who had been injured in airstrikes and other attacks. He helped set up several field hospitals in rural Damascus. Katoub also worked as a protection officer for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian organization harnessing the talents of Syrian-American healthcare professionals to provide medical relief. Katoub is currently the advocacy manager for the organization.
Only officials call Mohammed Abdullah by his name. To everyone else, the Syrian war photographer and human rights activist is known as Artino. Artino joined the protests in Syria shortly after they began, and worked as a photographer documenting life during watime, as well as an aid worker and communications manager for relief organizations across the country. Artino lived through the siege of Homs in 2012 and witnessed the 2013 chemical attack while he was trapped for two years – much of the time injured – in Eastern Ghouta. “It was like hell came to Eastern Ghouta,” he told Syria Deeply. Artino worked for the United Relief Office in Ghouta in al-Marj during the siege, and later joined the medical office of al-Marj. “They needed fuel, they needed equipment … many families [had only] one meal per day,” he said. Artino now lives in Belgium, where he works for The Syria Campaign and Break the Sieges. He frequently speaks to students and policymakers about Syria and the sieges. He also helped with the campaign to nominate the White Helmets for a Nobel Peace Prize.