Defiance and desperation inside the siege of Douma
For eighteen months the people of Douma, just north east of Damascus, have been besieged.
(Above: click black arrow on right to move to next picture)
Syrian government soldiers block their way in and out. Rebels from a number of different groups, including the Free Syrian Army, control the suburb. The civilians have had to learn to survive as best they can.
As we drove in this morning, accompanying only the second UN relief convoy to reach Douma since the siege began, I watched an old man in a red-and-white kuffieh scarf walk bent almost double under the weight of firewood.
The UN convoy, bringing food, medical supplies and sanitary necessities such as soap, snaked through the dusty roads past bombed out buildings and empty shops.
Fighters smiled and waved as we entered – I spotted one truck with the black flag of the jihadi group Jabat al-Nusra, while others had insignia and flags from local brigades.
Children waved too, and young men, three on a motorbike, sped alongside filming us with small cameras and smartphones. War has made journalists of them all.
We stopped so the UN could unload its trucks into a warehouse. A young volunteer from the Red Crescent handed me a piece of paper listing the names of seven colleagues detained by the Syrian authorities, with the date and place of arrest. Under each blurred photo were the words: “We have not received any information about him until now.”
A young man asked if we wanted to interview the local FSA commander so we went to meet Ahmad Taha, a middle-aged man with a grey beard, wearing fatigues.
He was, he said, commmander of the “martyrs brigade”, and there had been many marytrs in Douma.
In other suburbs, worn down by hunger and lack of outside support, opposition fighters have started to surrender under what the government calls the “reconciliation programme.” If they agree to join the Syrian army, or lay down their weapons, they will not be detained.
“We will never do that!” said Mr Taha, eyes flashing. “A ceasefire or reconciiation is out of the question. Bashar (al-Assad) has killed our kids and wives and destroyed our houses.”
His colleague, a thoughtful looking man with black scarf wound round his head, who said he had more lives than a cat, had similar fighting talk, but no illusions about the suffering war had brought.
“This used to be a middle-class place,” he said. “Now everyone is poor.”
The UN convoy was the result of a truce, agreed by both sides, to allow in humanitarian aid.
“The fact that we have got both sides to agree on this is a huge step forward,” said Matthew Hollingworth, the head of the UN World Food Programme, as boxes of food parcels were unloaded.
“But this a drop in the ocean. We need to come back tomorrow and the next day, and then again.” He hopes they will be able to feed 50,000 people but knows the need is much greater.
A few miles on, at the village of Misraba, they unloaded more food parcels as several hundred people queued – men in one line, women in the other – with their ration books. I asked some of the women, their faces completely covered with black cloth, what they thought about the rebels’ refusal to surrender.
“We want both sides to surrender,” said one. “We want our old lives back.”
The children, explained a teacher, still go to school but the government no longer pays teachers’ salaries because they say the area is full of fighters and all the civilians have left.
“Look at all these women!” he said, as they jostled to get their food, tempers beginning to fray. “Are they fighters?”
The siege of Douma is not complete – it’s a semi-rural area so people can grow vegetables and raise livestock. I didn’t see malnourished children, or not overtly so. But their lives have become a constant search for food, money, a bit here, a bit there, any means of survival. And government forces are still bombarding the area.
Siege may be the oldest, cruellest, most effective military tactic ever. The Romans used it. So did the Nazis and the British. The fighters of Douma say it won’t force them to abandon their struggle, but I wonder how long their families can hold out.
As we drove away, knots of people pursued our convoy. Some tried to jump on the backs of the vehicles, a woman knocked on our window and shouted. We sped through the checkpoint, free to leave, but they were trapped, victims of a war with no resolution in sight.
Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.