BEIRUT – Weeping children begged for food in the streets and women picked grass growing in the cracks of the sidewalks to eat as hunger gripped residents of rebel-held neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Homs blockaded for nearly two years by the military, 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 the 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 Assad's government 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 had delivered food parcels to prisoners, but had to stop this month because of intensified fighting around it. 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 the rule of President Bashar Assad in early 2011. Government forces managed to regain control of much of the city, but rebel fighters kept their grip on several districts, including the Old City, 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, according to a Syrian journalist who covered the evacuation. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to foreign media. He said some children were smeared in dirt, as if they hadn't bathed in weeks. Images of the evacuees aired earlier on Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV showed wide-eyed children with prominent cheekbones suggestive of malnutrition.
The journalist said evacuees described scrounging for food sources during the months of siege. Some smuggled in supplies through tunnels connecting with other Homs neighborhoods. Vendors bribed soldiers to let in some food — albeit at radically marked-up prices: $50 for a kilo (2 pounds) of rice cost, $40 for cracked wheat.
Tilawi, the evacuee, spoke to AP from the home of one his sons in al-Waar, a rebel-held area across the Orontes River from Homs where many of the evacuees went.
Some details of his account could not be independently confirmed, but it corresponded with what the journalist was told, as well as with AP interviews with several anti-Assad activists in Homs during the truce period and statements by U.N. and Red Crescent officials who described the emaciated state of evacuees.
Tilawi was trapped in Old Homs with three of his five sons. His wife escaped the siege earlier, moving in with relatives in a nearby town, but he hadn't heard from her in three months and feared she may have been killed in fighting.
It took months for the blockade to bite, he said. But by December, Tilawi said their rations dwindled to pickled olives. In their last weeks, Tilawi said he and his sons were eating a dish called "water soup" — a mix of spices, drops of oil, pomegranate juice syrup and boiling water — sometimes with cracked wheat if they could scrape up enough money.
The poorest women foraged for grass growing in cracks between concrete and bombed buildings, Tilawi said.
"I would see children crying in front of me. They would be on the streets, shaking the men, saying, 'Uncle, I'm hungry, I'm hungry, give me something to eat!'" he recalled, weeping.
When the truce and evacuation began, Tilawi said he was initially determined to stay. On the second day, he and other residents were told to gather for trucks bringing in food. When two vehicles arrived, he described chaos as desperate residents descended on them.
"Shame on us, if you saw us, fighting over the food. Tens of people, screaming, women, children, everybody," he said. "Then the mortars fell, and people were wounded, and it was a day of hell."
He decided to leave, abandoning his adult sons. He walked with dozens of others to reach the evacuation point in an area known as Qarabis. There, aid workers told them to walk between vehicles as cover from continuing fire as they were escorted to safety. They were each given water, an apple, a banana, and a can of Pepsi.
"One of the children asked me what it was. I said, they invented this thing called Pepsi before you were born. The kid had never seen a can of it before," he said.
He has little faith his trials are over. Al-Waar, where he took refuge, has also been under blockade for the past four months.
"We left a blockade, and have come to another one," said Tilawi. "But here, they are still at the beginning, they have food. In three or four months we'll run out, and we'll be hungry again."