BEIRUT – Weeping children begged for food and women picked grass to eat as hunger gripped rebel-held neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Homs during a nearly two-year military blockade, according to a rare firsthand account by a man evacuated during a truce last week.
That hunger caused Abu Jalal Tilawi to flee along with around 1,300 others, mostly women, children and elderly allowed out during the truce.
“They couldn’t dislodge us with the missiles they rained down on us,” the 64-year-old Tilawi said of besieging government forces. “The hunger defeated us. The hunger, the hunger, the hunger. I left the city where I was born, where my father was born, where my ancestors were born. I was weeping while I was walking.”
Tilawi’s account in a Skype interview spotlights the suffering experienced by an estimated 250,000 civilians living in over 40 areas across Syria that have been blockaded for months. Most of the sieges are by government forces aiming to wear down resistance, but rebels have also adopted the tactic in some areas.
Western powers at the U.N. Security Council are trying to push for more sanctions against Syria to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for the blockades, though Russia has vowed to veto a resolution.
“We are facing the worst humanitarian tragedy since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994,” France’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said Tuesday. “Starvation is used as a weapon by the regime.”
The continuing siege of rebel-held districts in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, is perhaps the longest. But the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamiyah has been under blockade for 15 months. A government siege of Yarmouk, an area on Damascus’ southern fringes that is home to some 18,000 people, has been in place for about a year, and activists estimate more than 100 people there have died of hunger-related illnesses and a lack of medical aid.
In the battleground northern city of Aleppo, rebels have blockaded the central prison, with an estimated 4,000 inmates, for almost year. Rebels say government forces use the prison to launch strikes on rebel-held districts.
Syrian government officials similarly say blockades are to prevent rebels from spreading and accuse them of holding residents hostage in besieged areas.
Homs, in central Syria, was one of the first cities to see a major uprising against Assad’s rule in early 2011. Government forces managed to regain control of much of the city, but rebel fighters kept their grip on several districts, including Old Homs, a historic medieval district that is largely a tight network of small alleyways.
In the summer of 2012, government forces clamped down on the district, barring the entry of food, water and medical supplies. The effect appeared to have been devastating.
Before the evacuation, an estimated 2,500 civilians were trapped in Old Homs. The truce came after a call by U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and came into effect Feb. 7, lasting until Wednesday evening. With a few exceptions, the Syrian government barred men considered of fighting age — between 15 and 55 — from leaving.
Some of those who emerged appeared frail and skinny, said Matthew Hollingworth, country director of the World Food Program, speaking from Homs about the evacuees. “They are physically and mentally exhausted from what they have suffered for 600 days, and they are at their wits’ end,” he said.
A Syrian reporter in Homs said evacuees described scrounging for food during the months of siege. Some smuggled in supplies through tunnels connecting with other Homs neighborhoods. Vendors bribed soldiers to let in some food, albeit at radically marked-up prices: $50 for a kilogram of rice and $40 for a kilogram of cracked wheat.
Others looted abandoned shops and homes, said Hollingworth.
Tilawi was trapped in Old Homs with three of his five sons. His wife escaped the siege earlier, moving in with relatives in a nearby town, but he hadn’t heard from her in three months and feared she may have been killed in fighting.
It took months for the blockade to bite, he said. But by December, their rations had dwindled to pickled olives. In their last weeks, Tilawi and his sons were eating a dish called “water soup” — a mix of spices, drops of oil, pomegranate juice syrup and boiling water — sometimes with cracked wheat if they could scrape up enough money.
The poorest women foraged for grass growing in cracks in the concrete and between bombed buildings, Tilawi said.
Hollingworth said that even during the evacuation, he saw people pulling weeds out of cracks in the pavement “to augment what is a very meager diet.” He said survivors also told him of people making the watery soup and had met a man who had caught cats to feed his children.
Tilawi has little faith his trials are over. Al-Waar, a rebel-held area across the Orontes River where he took refuge, has also been under blockade for the past four months. “We left a blockade and have come to another one,” he said. “But here they are still at the beginning, they have food. In three or four months, we’ll run out and we’ll be hungry again.”