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Syrian City Hit By Infamous Chemical Attack Is Now Dying Of Hunger

Al-Mouadamiyah, under siege
Al-Mouadamiyah, under siege
Benjamin Barthe

Al-Mouadamiyah's ordeal is not over yet. After being one of the targets of the Aug. 21 chemical attack, this stronghold of the Syrian rebellion, located in the southwestern suburbs of Damascus, is now facing such a severe siege that its inhabitants are starting to starve to death.

According to local sources, nine people have already died from lack of food: Seven of them were young children, the other two were women. Another 90 children have been placed under observation in a makeshift hospital in the basement of a building.

The Syrian National Coalition, the major organization of opponents to Bashar al-Assad, accused the president of deliberately "starving" the 12,000 people who are still hiding in the town and urged the international community to act to prevent a "humanitarian disaster".

"We have almost nothing left to eat," says Koussai Zakariya — the English alias of a young student who was rapidly promoted to spokesman for the local revolutionary council, when contacted via Skype. "We exhausted our food stocks two months ago. We're surviving on olives and the few vegetables we managed to grow. The town's children are dying of hunger right in front of their parents."

One of the most recent victims was a toddler, Rana Obeid, aged 13 months. A video uploaded on YouTube shows her lifeless and scrawny body. She died on Sept. 23 because her mother, herself victim of undernourishment, had stopped breastfeeding her and it's been impossible in recent months to find formula or natural milk in town.

"The situation is disastrous," warns Emadeddin Rachid, one of the leaders of the Syrian National Coalition, currently based in Turkey but originally from Al-Mouadamiyah. "They haven't had bread for five months now."

Some of the inhabitants, who live in army-controlled neighborhoods, are reportedly reduced to eating grass and twigs. "Most of those who try to flee are shot down by snipers," Rachid says.

Loyalist troops have encircled Al-Mouadamiyah since December 2012. With the neighboring town of Darayya, it is a key link in the rebels' strategy to move in on the capital. Learning from their incapacity to remove them with the usual raids and search operations, the Syrian authorities opted for another technique: containment and exhaustion. Their goal is to prevent the armed rebels from approaching Damascus and especially Mezzeh's military airport, the centerpiece of the capital's defense system that is adjacent to Al-Mouadamiyah.

The regime is not ready to release the pressure, especially as it knows that local fighters have at their disposition a huge arsenal that they took from a nearby military base in the summer of 2012.

"The town's defenders are very well armed," Emadeddin Rachid confirms. "There are several hundreds of them and they have rocket-launchers."

He says that the resistance claims to be part of the Free Syrian Army, the armed branch of the Syrian National Coalition — nationalists and moderate islamists. "The main two brigades are al-Fajr, commanded by a 55-year-old dentist, and al-Fattah, headed by an engineer," Rachid says.

The Syrian army has tightened its grip, little by little on the town, which used to count 60,000 inhabitants. Its hospitals were bombed, followed by its bakeries, its grocery shops and mosques. Power was cut, as well as telephone and water. Supplies first came through diverted routes that became more and more difficult to use, then they almost dried up completely.

"In the hospital, we're using bed sheets instead of bandages," Koussai Zakariya says. He hasn't left the town in almost two years. "We manage to charge our computers' and our phones' batteries thanks to homemade generators that use cooking oil as fuel. These devices are the only things that connect us to the rest of the world."

On Oct. 2, the UN Security Council voted unanimously for a declaration enjoining all parties of the conflict to allow for humanitarian aid convoys to travel freely in the country. The text, hailed by Western diplomats, is met by indifference in Al-Mouadamiyah.

Without real international pressure, the inhabitants fail to see how the Syrian government would accept to end the siege. "It's like in Homs last winter: The regime wants to push the people to their breaking point," Emadeddin Rachid says. "The difference though is that Homs is a big city and that fighters were able to escape through tunnels. In comparison, Al-Mouadamiyah is very small. Nobody can escape. There's going to be a massacre."

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