Syrian city remains under siege after 500 days: Homs passes milestone as civilians continue to die from gunfire and starvation

 

Beirut

The siege of the Syrian city of Homs has now raged for more than 500 days – a grim milestone that marks the length of suffering its civilians have endured.

Syrians are not only suffering from gunfire and bombing, but are also being “massacred by hunger” as food supplies dwindle and many are unable to be reached by international aid groups.

“There are no vegetables, very little bread. Milk for the children – there is none,” an old woman from Homs says in a video interview recently posted on YouTube – one of the main ways for Syrians to disseminate their opinions amid the civil war.

“Where is the Islamic world, where are the Arabs?” she asks accusingly. “There is nobody but Allah.”

Syrians are feeding their children anything they can find, including leaves, one Syrian mother told Save the Children for a recent report.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is trying to reach three million Syrians to offer assistance, but the security situation has hampered efforts to reach many areas.

A recent study by a collective of NGOs revealed that the number of Syrians in need of food aid could be as high as 10.5 million – more than half the country’s current population.

Homs is particularly affected; although the regime has won back control of most of the town, the old city remains under rebel command. Up to 3,000 people remain in the besieged part of the city, according to a local physician. Children daub the walls not with political slogans, but a daily reality: “I am hungry.”

“Most people are showing signs of malnutrition,” according to Yazan, a local activist, who says he has also felt his strength be sapped by hunger.

A view from the damaged Khaled bin Walid mosque in the al-Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs (Getty) A view from the damaged Khaled bin Walid mosque in the al-Khalidiyah neighbourhood of Homs (Getty)  

The crisis is set to worsen. Syria had already been experiencing a drought before the civil unrest kicked off, pushing people into extreme poverty. But 2013 has seen the worst harvest since an even more serious drought that hit 30 years ago and the government has had to admit that wheat production is falling far below its expected levels.

While the world focuses on chemical weapons inspections, the Damascus suburbs that were subject to the chemical attacks last month are also suffering from a severe lack of food. At least six people, including an 18-month-old girl, have died of hunger in the past few weeks, according to activists. Footage posted online shows severely malnourished children.

Such images are set to increase, according Ertharin Cousin, the head of the World Food Programme. “Those pictures will get worse and we, as the international community, should not wait until we have famine-like conditions before we bring attention to the fact that we don’t have access to too many of these areas.”

Children sit along a damaged street filled with debris in the besieged area of Homs (Getty) Children sit along a damaged street filled with debris in the besieged area of Homs (Getty)  

Although the agency is looking to ramp up its aid, reaching an additional million people across Syria, some pockets of the country cannot be reached because of fighting, Ms  Cousin said.

She appealed for access for UN chemical weapons inspectors, who returned to the country on Tuesday, to be coupled with increased aid access. “When you talk about a cessation of hostilities to allow access for the chemical workers, that cessation in hostilities should also allow access for humanitarian workers too,” she said.

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