Children in Syria are now eating leaves for nutrition. Residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp are baking flatbreads made from "stale lentils." A group of Muslim clerics has issued an Eid al-Adha fatwa allowing the hungry to consume cats, dogs and donkeys to survive. In Moadamiyah, one of the suburbs south of Damascus known as western Ghouta, gassed with sarin by the regime on August 21, residents subsist on a meager diet of olives, mint, grapevine leaves and figs. This is Assad's terror-famine. It's getting worse every day.
According to Qusai Zakarya, a rebel spokesman in the town, the regime cut all humanitarian supplies to Moadamiyah ten or eleventh months ago, and local stores ran out in March. So the people have had to rely mainly on the largesse of Syrians living in the countryside who ran basic staples into the town - and by "ran," I mean they drove by it on the Damascus-Quneitra highway and tossed grocery bags from their moving cars in the general direction of Moadamiyah, which then had to be retrieved by the inhabitants, sometimes at great risk. "This was rice, olives and makdous [cured eggplants], which lasts one to two years," Zakarya told me via Skype, with clear sounds of artillery fire in the background. "But three months ago, all this food ran out too." Water pipes into Moadamiyah, he said, had also been "blocked" or destroyed by the regime, leaving residents to rely on a single unreliable source of hydration. "Within the past month, we lost over 11 women and children from malnutrition. There are about 100 more suffering from malnutrition." Images and videos of starving children in the Damascus region, collected, verified, and mapped by my colleague James Miller, show a proliferation of tiny and emaciated corpses, starting in August and continuing to today.
With 12,000 civilians left, Moadamiyah is unique among opposition-friendly towns in Syria in that it's completely surrounded by the regime's praetorian divisions. To the east lies Mezze military airport; to the north, the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division, which is headed by Bashar's even more psychotic brother Maher al-Assad, who was maimed in an assassination attempt two summers ago; to the west, the Republican Guard; and to the south, Deraya, a former rebel hotspot, much of which has been retaken by the regime. Moadamiyah was also one of the first districts in Damascus Governorate to protest against the arrest of children in Deraa in March 2011, making it not only a longstanding revolutionary town but also one of the direst targets for Assad's vengeance.
"Even before there was a Free Syrian Army," Zakarya told me, "the Assad army had killed over 600 people with knives - many were also burnt. Ninety-five percent of the rebels here are young people who took up arms using their own money. Some sold their cars or houses to buy AK-47s and light weapons. Hamdullah [‘praise God'], the regime could not invade us." The FSA says it's happy to live on olives and water rather than let the town fall.
So first the regime asphyxiated everyone. Zakarya says that about 85 Moadamiyah residents were killed by the sarin gas attack almost two months ago, and another 500 (including himself) were exposed to the deadly nerve agent. Shortly thereafter regime forces concocted a plan to try and invade Moadamiyah yet again, using a dozen Russian-made T-72 and T-82 tanks - the latter are "brand new," Zakarya said - as well as soldiers dressed in "full chemical gear." "Thanks to God, the plan failed." And while Assad now busies himself by acting as the West's newly re-legitimate partner in chemical disarmament, both his elite military units and his sectarian militias have taken to systematic starvation as their preferred counterinsurgency tactic. What's more, they admit it. "We won't allow them to be nourished in order to kill us," a 24 year-old member of the National Defense Force, the Alawite-Shia paramilitary group trained and funded by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps as the Syrian answer to the Basij, told the Wall Street Journal on October 2. "Let them starve for a bit, surrender and then be put on trial." Of course, this guerrilla claims to be only shooting fighting-age men, not women and children, though he gave no account to the Journal of how a starvation effort can distinguish between rebels and civilians. Moreover, the Fourth Armored Division openly describes all residents left in Moadamiyah as "terrorists and those embracing them."
Not that Damascus also isn't trying to offer its own patented brand of humanitarian relief.
The kindness of the regime
Five days ago, locals were able to get around 600 women, children and seniors out of Moadamiyah after a cease-fire was brokered with the regime. They were taken to Qusaya, a Damascus town completely controlled by Assadist forces where the inevitable happened, according to Zakarya: 10 children were kidnapped by intelligence agents and beaten into confessing information about the whereabouts of FSA fighters and activists inside Moadamiyah. "Four of these kids were released after 10 hours and told us the story," Zakarya said. "Another six are still missing." Power outages mean communicating with those outside the town is difficult. Zakarya said that to fuel his cellphone, which he was using to talk to me, car and scooter batteries were rigged up as homemade generators.
More troubling is the regime's designated point-person for coordinating the civilian evacuations: Mother Agnes Mariam, the 61-year-old Lebanese-born Catholic nun who has earned international notoriety as an Assad agent posing as a Christian missionary in Syria. Agnes blamed the gruesome Houla massacre last year on the rebels in spite of the U.N. report which found that shabiha were responsible. Lately she's gained a higher media profile by claiming that the Ghouta attacks were "staged" and that the many victims documented in videos and photographs on August 21 were actually Alawites brought into Damascus by rebels who abducted them from villages over 150 miles away. The Russian government, which continues to deny the regime's culpability, has relied heavily on Mother Agnes' conspiracy theory - even though it doesn't withstand even superficial methodological scrutiny, even though it contradicts another Moscow-blessed allegation which has the rebels gassing themselves with Saudi-bought sarin, and even though the Carmelite nun was nowhere near Ghouta when the chemical atrocities took place.
Zakarya, who initially praised Agnes to the New York Times as a "brave woman" for at least traveling to an active war zone ostensibly to witness starvation and misery first hand, now calls her a "manipulative liar."
"The first day, when she entered Moadamiyah, we welcomed her and we talked with her. She said a lot of good things, that we were fighting for a good cause, fighting for our freedom and we must get the civilians out. But went she got out, she spoke to the media and said she saw terrorists and Islamic extremists in Moadamiyah."