BEIRUT (AP) — Weeping children begged for food and women picked grass to eat as hunger gripped rebel-held neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Homs during a nearly two-year military blockade, according to a rare first-hand account by a man evacuated during a truce this week.
It was ultimately that hunger that caused Abu Jalal Tilawi to flee, along with around 1,300 others, mostly women, children and elderly allowed out during the truce.
"They couldn't dislodge us with the missiles they rained down on us," the 64-year-old Tilawi said of besieging government forces. "The hunger defeated us. The hunger, the hunger, the hunger. I left the city where I was born, where my father was born, where my ancestors were born. I was weeping while I was walking."
Tilawi's account in a Skype interview spotlights the suffering experienced by an estimated 250,000 civilians living in over 40 areas across Syria that have been blockaded for months. Most of the sieges are by government forces, aiming to wear down resistance, but rebels have also adopted the tactic in some areas.
Western powers at the U.N. Security Council are trying to push for more sanctions against Syria to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for the blockades, though Russia has vowed to veto a resolution.
"We are facing the worst humanitarian tragedy since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994," France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said Tuesday. "Starvation is used as a weapon by the regime.'
The continuing siege of rebel-held districts in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, is perhaps the longest. But the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamiyah has been under blockade for 15 months. A government siege of Yarmouk, an area on Damascus' southern fringes that is home to some 18,000 people, has been in place for about a year, and activists estimate more than 100 people there have died of hunger-related illnesses and a lack of medical aid.
In the battleground northern city of Aleppo, rebels have blockaded the central prison, with an estimated 4,000 inmates, for almost year. The Syrian Red Crescent delivered food parcels to prisoners, but had to stop this month because of intensified fighting. Rebels say government forces use the prison to launch strikes on rebel-held districts of the city.
"People will suffer inside the prison, but there are ... people who are suffering in Aleppo because of the regime controlling this prison," said Abu Adel, a rebel from the Ansar al-Haq Brigade taking part in the siege. He spoke via Skype on condition he be identified only by his nom de guerre for security reasons.
Syrian government officials similarly say blockades are to prevent rebels from spreading and accuse them of holding residents in besieged areas hostage.
Homs, in central Syria, was one of the first cities to see a major uprising against Assad's rule in early 2011. Government forces managed to regain control of much of the city, but rebel fighters kept their grip on several districts, including Old Homs, the historic Medieval district that is largely a tight network of small alleyways.
In the summer of 2012, government forces clamped down their siege on the district, barring the entry of food, water and medical supplies.
The effect appeared to have been devastating.
Before the evacuation, an estimated 2,500 civilians were trapped in Old Homs. The truce came after a call by U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and came into effect on Friday, lasting until Wednesday evening. With a few exceptions, the Syrian government barred men considered of fighting age — between 15 and 55 — from leaving.
The truce was shaken by repeated shooting and shelling that prevented many civilians from leaving, killed 11 people, and forced U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent workers to repeatedly halt evacuations and shipments of food into the besieged districts. In the end, around 1,300 made it out — including 500 children, 20 pregnant women and a number of disabled, according to accounts from U.N. and Syrian officials.
Some of those who emerged —though not all — appeared frail and skinny, said Matthew Hollingworth, country director of the World Food Program, speaking from Homs about the evacuees.