Starvation in Aleppo: 'I just hope to die and disappear from this world'

#SyriaWar

As winter sets in, families in the ravaged Syrian city give insights on how a lack of food and water has compounded their misery.

Children play with bomb shrapnel and rocks in the Ferdous area of Aleppo (Malek Al-Shimale)
Zouhir Al-Shimale's picture
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Thursday 13 April 2017 12:53 UTC
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Editor's note: The following interviews were conducted in Aleppo during the past week, before renewed attacks by Syrian and Russian forces which have left scores more residents dead. They testify to the acute food shortages which have plagued the eastern half of the city, now under siege for several months. Last week, the United Nations warned that food would run out this week and that the onset of winter could have fatal consequences for those who remain. The interviewees talked freely but asked that their photographs not be taken.

 

Jamel Agha, 34, four children (ages six months to 14)



How has life been for you and your family?

We have suffered incredibly during the past month and especially during the past week. I don't know whether I am going to spend my day working to get some money to feed my family, or spend my time looking and chasing for food. Everything has disappeared from the city: sugar, flour, oil and fuel for cooking. It has been exhausting every day.

Yesterday we didn't have lunch, just a basic meal with rice and water to drink – dirty water from underground. There was no bread as we ran out last night. My wife is trying to breastfeed our six-month-old son, but she is unable [to do that] now as she is not eating well herself. I am exhausted as I try to find powdered milk for him.

'There is either nothing to eat; or if there is, then the prices are very high'

Our gas cooker has stopped working as well, and we are cooking on a gas fire, which is a real burden to bear. On top of that, all of the prices have gone up again, such as mutton, which was $20 per kilo last week. Now it's more than $25. Even if I want to buy a zatar pie or baked flour, it's not available. The baker at the market has totally run out. Before, people used the flour that was distributed to them by a relief organization a month ago. But that’s all gone now.

There is either nothing to eat, or, if there is, the prices are very high. We are just waiting for an even bigger disaster than we have right now.

How are you coping with the attacks?

We can do nothing, even the rebels themselves can do no more. They are fighting each other and seem to have lost the point. I am just going to wait. I would leave, to be frank, if I had the chance to do so, if there was a safe corridor, but now there is none.

'We are forced to use dirty water from underground for drinking and cooking which cause illnesses, stomach aches and vomiting'

The fact is, we are trapped, with no food or water. We are forced to use dirty water from underground for drinking and cooking, which causes illnesses, stomach aches and vomiting. But we have run out of choices here. Even if we want to buy a bottle of water, it will cost and become something else to pay for. I can't handle that.

Why not leave Aleppo?

I am sick of it all, as are many other people I know. We can’t do anything about changing the military situation or our livelihood. That’s down to those with responsibility here, like the Aleppo free council and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] police officers. They should keep an eye on the shops and sellers, who take control of the food prices and demand whatever they want, without any fear of judgment or punishment from anyone. It’s as if there are no rules and people don’t have the morality to sell food at the proper price.

We plan to leave and live elsewhere, not here, if we get the chance to leave. But so far we’ve been unable to: I just wait, like many others do. Like me, they are sick of all this nonsense. The rebels can't control this part of the city. They certainly won't take the west of Aleppo nor the rest of the country. And this is the result.

What do you think of the Free Syrian Army and how the war is going?

I have many relatives who are FSA fighters. We talk and discuss the situation. But from what they’ve seen - looking at what’s happening on the ground, what the rebels have accomplished so far, what the results have been - I’m not sure about the future.

READ: Russia’s fight to take Aleppo for good is about to begin

If the rebels can push the regime's forces back, then we can prevent them from advancing. But the regime has made huge steps. We are just losing every day. The rebels are also fighting each other, stealing from each other and hiding food and supplies and ammunition. After six years we haven’t done anything to fix it and have ended up under siege for more than 80 days.

Only God knows when it will end.

 

Um Ahmad, 29, three children (ages two to 10)



How has life been for you and your family?

I’m suffering every day. I cook with flour and use a bad-quality cooking oil to feed the children, but it’s not enough. They become hungry very fast, but I have nothing to give them. I feel helpless. Me and my husband can't afford to feed our kids.

'I don't know how long we going to last and hold on. I don’t have any more supplies for the next week'

There is nothing to buy anyway: we can't buy vegetables as they have disappeared from the shops. If you can find a farmer, who might be growing some plants, then he will demand a very high price. As for meat, it's something we haven’t even had in the house. It’s been more than two months since we last tasted mutton, we eat just rice, falafel and other legumes. But the food has no vitamins, nor the essential requirements needed so my kids can grow up healthy. As a result, my kids are growing really skinny – as am I – losing weight and looking pale.

I don't know how long we are going to last and hold on. I don’t have any more supplies for the next week. My house is running out of sugar, flour, rice and other provisions. I don't know what to do. I pray that something will change or that a breakthrough will happen so we can have food.

How do you cope with the attacks?

We will do what we have done before. If there is an air strike, then we just stay and sleep in the kitchen. It's the safest room, but even there we have nowhere to run if it hits. The bombs are horrifically devastating. We are taking these punches, being hit by one after another. It’s endless suffering. At some point I just hope to die and disappear from this world.



The contents of what was once a family room spill from a devastated building in Aleppo (Malek Al-Shimale)

But no, I am here, seeing my kids afraid and cry when they hear a nearby bomb or clashes. I can do nothing for them, apart from give them a hug and whisper in their ears that it'll be fine. Otherwise we do nothing but pray that things don't get any worse.

Why not leave Aleppo?

At this point I really don't know what we will do. I have this feeling that I want to stay, yet at the same time I want to leave. I want to stay, but under better circumstances, where I have food and supplies and no bombs or fear of death in my home. But that’s not happening and because of that I want to leave.

'This is no way to live. You can name anything, any kind of food, and I will tell you right away, without any hesitation, that we don’t have it'

This is no way to live. You can name anything, any kind of food, and I will tell you right away, without any hesitation, that we don’t have it. If we do happen to have it, then it costs more than double the usual price. The prices are all the same, all going in the wrong direction. So I want to leave – but to where? I don’t know.

I could maybe go to my sister's house in the west of Aleppo or to my family in the countryside. But it’s just as bad, I will still be displaced and homeless.

What do you think of the Free Syrian Army and how the war is going?

They can fight back, but it will not last for long. We have been under siege for a long time and the rebels have used up all their ammunition.

Basically, the rebels are getting weak. They have mounted many offensives which have failed and they will, I guess, soon use up all their ammunition. If the regime attacks the east then the fight will not last very long.

I don’t know what will happen, but it’s not likely to be good. The regime is only going to continue to advance as it has the momentum. Hopefully, it won’t become bloody again, as it was before when they were bombing us.

Maybe the regime will take the city, maybe not. Things are getting out of control at the moment, and anything can happen.

 

Yaseen Hamadeh, four children (ages 19 to 29)



How has life been for you and your family?

I live with my wife: my sons are all in Turkey. We decided to stay here and not leave our homeland.

Prices are going up and there are no supplies left in the city. I used to buy eggplant and other kinds of vegetables, which grew on small plots of land outside the city. But now farmers are growing less as the weather is changing and becoming unpredictable. Me and my wife just stick with rice and bulgur and other beans that we still have stored from the beginning of the siege. Yet all of that’s about to run out as we’ve used it every day. Meat and sugar, basic things we used to have like oil, butter, flour… all those have run out.

'Sugar used to be  50 cents before the siege, now it's $16. Mutton used to be $7 per kilo, now it's nearly $30 and increasing every day'

If I want to buy any food, and I do find someone to sell me some, then they would charge me 30 or 40 times more than before the siege. For example, sugar used to be 50 cents before the siege, now it's $16. Mutton used to be $7 per kilo, now it's nearly $30 and increasing every day.

As a result of all this horrible lack of resources, I just stick with what I already have and buy nothing unless I need some meat or oil. If I find something then I buy it quickly to use it that day but buy nothing to keep in the house. We have no fridge or place to keep the food, so we just eat day to day.

How are you coping with the attacks?

What can we do to prepare for them?  If there were some place to go then maybe I would for a while. I would wait till the fight ends, then come back here, as I don't want to live away from my home or neighbours. I just want to be as close as possible to my neighborhood.

Even if we stay here in the east, avoiding death while trying to find food, it still seems preferable to living in a shelter in a camp on the border. There is nothing I or anyone else can do about the lack of security now. It's the same with the food. We can't store any food or water. As I told you, we have to fulfill our needs, day by day. We will just wait till the fighting ends and see who will win and rule the country. Then we can settle back home again.

Why not leave Aleppo?

I want to leave temporarily with my wife for a while, then come back. But I’ve not been able to so far as all the routes out of the east are closed. It's really ironic how the situation is now. Before, during the last truce, the regime and Russia promised safe passage for us to leave. They weren’t really serious: they used to shoot at people travelling on the road in Bustan Al-Qasr and no one was able to cross towards the west of Aleppo.



Devastated buildings in the Maade area of Aleppo (Malek Al-Shimale)

But now they're threatening us. First they send messages, telling us to leave right away or else remain and face the intense situation which is about to escalate again. They're playing a game. On the one hand, they tell the world that they will give the terrorists a final chance to leave; on the other hand, they say they are going to start a new offensive against the east, which will be bloodier than before. They are manipulating us and the whole world, using filthy propaganda to spark further conflict in the city.

What do you think of the Free Syrian Army and how the war is going?

The fighting will escalate pretty soon, but how and when I don't know. I think that the rebels will be able to fight back and defeat Assad's forces in the short term and make progress, that’s for sure. But in the long term - which is what matters to the regime -  the rebels lack the capability to fight.

They will gradually lose if the conflict favors the regime, with its constant attacks backed up by Russia. It will end with the east of the city taken back, little by little, as happened in Ghota in rural Damascus. There, the rebels decided to leave their machine guns and headed for Idlb. That's one of the possibilities that could happen here. Who knows?