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The mass protests that broke out in March 2011 were met with deadly military force, prompting the formation of local units of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Regime forces have worked since to quell the local rebellion; for the past year and a half, 14 neighborhoods have lived under a grinding siege with no goods entering or exiting the city.
Hundreds of thousands of mortars have destroyed Homs, forever changing its once familiar face. Here, darkness reigns once the sun sets. Diesel fuel reserves have long been depleted after they were used to power generators. Now electricity is only used in emergencies: in field hospitals or to power surveillance cameras on the front lines.
The dearth of drinking water is severe, as are the cuts in electricity. For those under siege, water used to be extracted from home wells using small generators, but this is no longer an option. Today, residents manually fill buckets, the only available solution to deliver water to those who need it within the neighborhood.
Reem, Hiba and Yamama start every morning by delivering water buckets to their homes using baby strollers. The eldest among the three girls just turned 10. There is no school. Despite their obligation to do manual chores, they are still children. Yamama still sings lullabies while delivering water in her old baby stroller.
After the Cats, What Next?
Residents of the besieged neighborhoods have grown used to the scarcity of food. A little bit of wheat, flour, rice, bulgur or lentils is enough for one’s daily meal, to live another day through siege. But as the long months have passed, foodstuffs have become harder to come by. Those found in abandoned houses within the siege parameter have run out, and there are no more alternatives. One’s daily meal now requires a lot of effort, searching in places that have not been reached before. The lucky ones are those who find some rice.
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Basic supplies range from scarce to nonexistent. This only becomes worse with the harsh winter and the spread of rodents. Meanwhile, the daily shelling continues. Regime forces and loyalist militias have not relented in their bid to tighten the noose on the siege, retaking Khaldiyeh district three months ago.
Diseases caused by malnutrition and low immunity have spread among those living under siege. Anemia, jaundice, intestinal infections and chronic fatigue have settled in alongside the wounds caused by daily fighting and random shelling that now take longer to heal due to the lack of medication and proper nutrition. Complications frequently arise, sometimes causing permanent damage to the patient.
Giving birth under siege is a risk, not only due to the daily realities of shelling and hunger, but even the lack of hospital facilities. Two premature babies have died because there were no hospitals available to care for them. Those newborns destined to survive begin their lives under siege, and are fed milled rice flour instead of mother’s milk or baby formula, as both are unavailable.
Abu Ahmad, who works in one of the field hospitals, describes the agony of the medical staff: “You can’t do anything. A premature baby needs an incubator, and there is none. All we can do is wait for him to die as we watch his parents suffer.”
Mulberry leaves, dry bread, bran, barley flour and expired foodstuffs have all become part of the diet of those under siege. In exceptional cases, some sheikhs allowed the residents of besieged eastern Ghouta in Damascus to eat cats. The only difference between eastern Ghouta and Homs is that the latter has been under siege longer.
Many never considered eating cats, even in worst-case scenarios. No one thought the land would no longer be able to feed its people. Cats had always been kept as pets, our domestic companions in the city, but today, they could possibly be the next meal if the situation keeps worsening.
300 Families, Hundreds Wounded and Deafening Silence
Over 300 families live under the siege, including 200 individuals who have been permanently disabled due to injuries sustained in fighting or shelling. They fight to stay alive under horrendous living conditions that seems light years from 21st-century civilization. This siege is probably the longest known of a city engulfed by war.
Amer, a young man, said: “Never have I imagined that the cats I used to take care of since I was a child would become a meal to residents under siege.”
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He now tries to think of ways to help the cats from his childhood so they do not end up on the menu of one of the besieged residents.
Those at the helm inside the besieged neighborhoods are constantly trying to brainstorm ways to meet the residents’ basic needs, find a way to evacuate the wounded and families, and provide safe routes to deliver aid, be it food or medicine. Over the last year and a half, pleas to international humanitarian organizations to help the besieged civilians have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Children wishing to enjoy a piece of candy or fruit; the elderly wanting to visit with their grandchildren; a young man longing to reunite with his parents; and men hoping to see their wives and children again are simple wishes that fall within the scope of one’s basic human rights, but the silence of the world is mind-boggling. All the things international humanitarian and legal organizations call for, especially when it comes to basic human rights, have become void slogans with the siege that has continued for a year and a half.
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri