Starvation in Syria: a war tactic

Reuters

* Food, medicine, people blocked from areas of Syria

* One million Syrians trapped in areas where aid is stalled- UN

* Residents of besieged town eating leaves and grass

* Doctors say children dying of malnutrition

* Evacuees of besieged town fired on - state media

DAMASCUS, Oct 30 (Reuters) - One Syrian security officialcalled it the "Starvation Until Submission Campaign", blockingfood and medicine from entering and people from leaving besiegedareas of Syria.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have used partialsieges to root out rebel forces from residential areas duringthe civil war. But a recent tightening of blockades around areasnear the capital is causing starvation and death, residents andmedical staff say.

At an army checkpoint that separates government-held centralDamascus from eastern suburban towns earlier this month, a thin,teenage boy on a bicycle circled a soldier and begged to beallowed to take a bag of pita bread, a staple food, into theeastern suburbs. The soldier refused but the boy kept beggingfor "just one loaf".

The soldier finally shouted: "I'm telling you, not a singlemorsel is allowed in there. I don't make the rules. There arethose bigger than me and you who make the rules and they'rewatching us right now. So go back home." The soldier, visiblyupset, exhaled quietly and deeply when the boy slipped out ofsight.

The incident illustrates how blockades are being used as aweapon in a war that grew out of pro-democracy protests in thesummer of 2011, increasing an already grave humanitarian crisis.Blockades are employed mostly by the government but also on asmaller scale by the armed opposition.

Food and medicine, which could be used by the warringparties, are rarely allowed to enter besieged areas and themovement of civilians in and out is restricted.

Over one million Syrians are trapped in areas where aiddeliveries have stalled, the United Nations says.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairssaid in a report last month that half of those people are inrural Damascus and around 310,000 people more trapped in Homsprovince in central Syria.

EID BLOCKADE

At a checkpoint in central Damascus, a state securityofficial, known as Abu Haidar, was heard to say "we like to callit our Starvation Until Submission Campaign". It's a phrase usedincreasingly by Assad's supporters in the capital.

The Syrian government has not commented on accusations it isusing hunger as a weapon of war. It says that residents havebeen taken "hostage by terrorists". Aid workers say they aredenied access. Both sides use checkpoints to mark territory andprevent the movement of enemy fighters and supporters.

Rebel-held towns to the east, south and west of Damascus areunder partial or total siege and Abu Haidar said that the armyhad begun to block off the towns of Qudsayya and Hameh, a 15minute drive north from central Damascus onto the Qasiounmountain range.

Residents of these two towns said that earlier this month,on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, many wereforbidden from leaving to visit family elsewhere.

Chances of success in getting past the checkpoints depend onyour identity card - public sector workers and school childrenare sometimes allowed through. Parents are told to stay behind.

Some people were allowed to leave on foot and residentsreported a small exodus of civilians who feared that artillerybombardment would follow the siege, as it has in other areaswhere rebels have positioned themselves.

The main checkpoint forbids most cars from entering orleaving the two towns, forcing people to get out of theirvehicles, walk down the highway for 20 minutes and use publictransport on the other side.

Soldiers conduct vehicle and body searches to prevent"smuggling" of bread, baby milk and medicine into the besiegedarea - jailing offences. The checks create long queues ofresidents trying to return home, sometimes forcing them to waitfor hours.

All traffic is prevented from entering Hameh, a mostly SunniMuslim town where many residents support the rebellion. There issome movement into Qudsayya, a more religiously mixed area thatis home to tens of thousands of displaced Syrians from otherparts of the country.

NO BREAD

During a two-day visit by this journalist last month to theeastern towns, resourceful locals made do with what they had.

They gathered fruit and vegetables from the few orchardsthey could still access without risking government sniper fireand shelling. Those with cash paid smugglers to bring in bags offlour and other foodstuffs or medicine.

But nowhere in town was pita bread available. Local doctorssaid they regularly treat patients for water-borne diseases andthat aerial bombardment has damaged the infrastructure,contaminating the water with sewage.

Doctors said that they were observing symptoms ofmalnutrition such as dehydration, severe weight loss, diarrhoeaand bloated stomachs.

International have little access to areas hit by violence.Groups like Save the Children are warning of a potential crisis.The agency released a report last month saying that parts ofHoms, Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus have been encircled by violenceor deliberately besieged.

In a separate development, the World Health Organisationconfirmed an outbreak of polio among young children in northeastSyria on Tuesday - a consequence of falling vaccination rates inwartime.

The situation is acute for people living in Mouadamiya, onthe southwestern outskirts of the capital Damascus, which hasbeen under siege for a year and suffered from chemical weaponsstrikes and continuous bombardment.

Unlike East Ghouta, which also endured chemical attacks butis sometimes accessible, Mouadamiya is completely surrounded bythe military.

The opposition says 12,000 people face starvation and deathin Mouadamiya. About 90 percent of Mouadamiya has been destroyedand few doctors remain, it says.

This month, according to residents who live there reached bySkype, government aerial bombardment hit one of two remainingmains pipelines that deliver drinking water throughoutMouadamiya, further contaminating the local water supply.

Residents say that smugglers used to be able to throw bagspacked with baby milk and medicine from moving cars into thetown while driving along a nearby highway. But in July, the roadbecame an active frontline between the army and rebels.

"No one can smuggle anything to us anymore," said residentand activist Qusai Zakarya. He said that many smugglers alongthe highway have been killed by government snipers. "Now, onlyshelling and bullets enter Mouadamiya, and only the souls of thedeparted can leave."

DYING OF HUNGER

For months, international pressure has been mounting onSyrian authorities to open humanitarian corridors to deliver aidto the besieged civilians.

Under international law, siege is not specificallyprohibited. However deliberate starvation in a conflict iswidely held to be a war crime and the law of armed conflictrequires all sides to allow free access of humanitarian relieffor civilians in need.

Although Syria is not party to the International CriminalCourt - which can prosecute war crimes - the United NationsSecurity Council has the power to refer cases.

Three Security Council resolutions condemning Assad havebeen vetoed by permanent member Russia, one of his strongestallies, and China, making a referral unlikely.

Earlier this month, 3,000 women and children were evacuatedfrom Mouadamiya, the United Nations said. But their sufferingand starvation may continue as many have sought shelter in anabandoned school on the outskirts of Qudsayya, where the siegeis starting.

On Tuesday, 1,800 residents were evacuated from the town, asource from the Ministry for Social Affairs said. State mediasaid they were fired on by "terrorists."

Hunger has become so endemic that locals say they eat leavesand grass.

Fatima, who fled Mouadamiya just before the siege last yearalong with her husband and their five children to centralDamascus, said one of her relatives died in Mouadamiya in Augustfrom starvation. He was three years old.

Local doctors sent Reuters videos showing six cases of deathfrom malnutrition. Most of the victims were children.

Activist Zakarya said that this month alone, he knows of 11women and children who died of starvation, including 7-year-oldDua al Sheikh, who was her parents' only daughter.

He said that after months of eating the rice, barley andbulgur wheat in stock, families are now down to little more thanolives and olive oil for three meals a day.

"We sometimes roll a bunch of grape leaves together andsprinkle it with salt and pepper and eat it pretending it'syabraa," said Zakarya, referring to a popular Syrian dish ofgrape leaves stuffed with rice and ground lamb or beef.

Civilians in besieged areas say farmers are targeted as theytry to harvest their crop in an open field. They tell also ofgovernment shelling that purposely sets entire crop fieldsablaze, around Damascus and in Homs province.

In Mouadamiya, people have been planting rocket plants insmall patches of earth between buildings so as to avoid any openfields.

And Zakarya says "we use grass sometimes as a salad, witholives and olive oil."

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