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Syria’s civilians go hungry after months of siege

1 Feb The Independent

“Bread is a dream for children inside Yarmouk Camp,” says Fuad, a Syrian Palestinian music teacher who tries to help bring food to the 20,000 Palestinians besieged inside Yarmouk. Standing by a barrier of sand and rubble that blocks an entrance to the camp in south Damascus, he adds that “people have been trapped in there for 185 days and are sick because they are eating weeds we used to feed our animals”.

Syria is dotted with sieges and blockades of cities, towns and districts which in some cases are producing mass starvation. International attention is currently focused on the Old City of Homs where between 2,500 and 4,000 civilians are besieged along with several thousand rebel fighters.A World Food Programme convoy waits for permission to enter from the Syrian government. It says it does not want the aid to go armed opposition fighters.

Unnoticed by the outside world, the largest single community currently besieged and on the edge of starvation in Syria lives in two Shia towns west if Aleppo, Zahraa and Nobl, with a combined population 45,000. In this case the besiegers are Sunni rebels who accuse the Shia townspeople of supporting the government of President Bashar al-Assad and are seeking to starve them into submission.

Zahraa and Nubl form an isolated Shia pocket in an area where most of the people are Sunni supporting the rebels. The towns have received no supplies from the outside apart from an occasional delivery by a government helicopter. Raul Rosende, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Syria said: “We are concerned about the situation in Zahraa and Nubl where 45,000 people are under siege.” A few Shia have escaped into Turkey and then crossed back into Kurdish-controlled north-east Syria.

The politics of starvation are complex in Syria and open to manipulation for propaganda purposes. The problem stems primarily from the government forces’ strategy of sealing off areas that have been captured by the armed opposition and not letting people or goods in or out.

Electricity and water is usually cut off, then the Syrian Army bombards the area with artillery and from the air, leading to a mass exodus of refugees. This approach has the advantage from the government point of view of avoiding house-to-house fighting in which their best troops would suffer heavy attrition.

Not all sieges are as tightly maintained as Homs Old City, Yarmouk, Zahraa and Nubl, but blockades still cause serious deprivation and intense suffering. People may not be dying in the streets but the very young, very old and very sick pass away earlier than would otherwise have happened. The biggest opposition-held area near Damascus is the Eastern Ghouta to the east of the capital, where 145,000 are estimated by the UN to be cut off from the outside world, but this rebel bastion is so large that it difficult to seal off entirely.

The Old City of Homs is a small part of a city, large parts of which were once held by rebel fighters, but these have gradually been squeezed out.

Although the government has sought to seal off the Old City for a long time, its defenders were able to bring in supplies through a network of tunnels until last summer.

They also had a supply line running through the town of Qusayr to Lebanon, but this was lost after an assault by Syrian Army and the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah in May and June of last year.

 

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