Mass Murder in Slow Motion (II): Siege Economies

This is the second in a series of posts on East Ghouta (Damascus); the first, providing essential background, is here.

The logic of the siege warfare pursued by Syria and its allies has been to cordon off areas under rebel control; to restrict, disrupt and ultimately prevent movement across the siege lines (including food, fuel and medical supplies); to subject the besieged population to sustained and intensifying military violence from aircraft, ground ordnance (artillery, missiles and mortars) and sniper fire; and to outlaw the provision of medical aid to those inside the besieged areas and limit the evacuation of the sick and wounded.

You can find more on the reincarnation of siege warfare as a tactic of counterinsurgency in later modern war herehere, here and here.

Precarious lines and precarious lives

In this post I examine the siege economies that emerged in East Ghouta from 2012 and their transformation over the next six years (to March 2018).

The restrictions on movement imposed on the besieged population varied in time and space.  This map from the New York Times plots incidents between the Syrian Arab Army and various rebel groups from September to November 2012:

As the clashes intensified the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies established a series of checkpoints in November-December to regulate the movement of people and supplies between Damascus and East Ghouta, though Amnesty International reported that anyone crossing ‘ran the risk of being detained or shot by government snipers’ and there were also reports of goods being confiscated or pilfered.  Access to those crossing points was also controlled from within the besieged area by armed opposition groups whose actions affected both entrance and exit.

The restrictions increased, along with the dangers, until in August 2013 the two crossing points at al-Mleha and Douma were closed by the SAA.  One woman recalled how she ‘didn’t understand’ what was happening when the road out of Ghouta was first blocked::

What did it mean that we were trapped? Then stores’ shelves gradually went empty. Food, fuel, the most basic essentials … everything began to vanish.

But some trucks were still allowed through a third crossing point at al-Wafideen, and the ensuing geography of closure was intricate.

A series of semi-clandestine routes was established between East Ghouta and the suburban towns of al-Qaboun and Barzeh on the other side of the Damascus-Homs highway; an uneasy truce was concluded with rebels in those two towns in January and February 2014, and these routes became vital conduits for smuggling goods into East Ghouta.

People in al-Qaboun and Barzeh relied on conditional access to regime-controlled neighbourhoods beyond the checkpoints.  ‘The residents of al-Qaboun and Barzeh live as though they are trapped in a limbo,’ wrote Rafia Salameh, ‘at the mercy of checkpoints.’

The ʻmoodʼ of these checkpoints is measured in the distance between the guards’ pockets – as they are hungry and poor – and their strict application of the law within the presence of superior officers, punishing those who try to smuggle past them simple materials for survival…

Lighters, batteries, light bulbs and any other electrical devices are forbidden. Salt and citric acid, which may be used in the manufacture of explosives, are also forbidden. Gas, milk bottles, and diapers are allowed through if the family carries around the proper documentation in which checkpoint transits are recorded by date, to prove they are not smugglers. However, all these regulations frequently fell silent by paying a bribe at the Barzeh checkpoint.

Salim, a 13-year-old young merchant of sugar says: “They beat us and chase us when the main officer is present.” He went on to explain how his sales decisions are driven by what he can or cannot afford to pay at the checkpoint. His profit per kilogram of sugar is 100 Syrian pounds (SYP), or $0.20 on the black market. He can carry eight kilograms of sugar, and he dips into his profits to purchase a pack of cigarettes for the security officers to allow him through their inspection. The cigarette pack costs 300 SYP, or $0.60. That means he ends the day with less than 500 SYP of profit, which amounts to one US dollar.

Some of these goods ultimately found their way through the tunnels into East Ghouta, but the price differentials between Damascus (which was not without economic problems of its own) and the Ghouta were stark.  Aron Lund posted this chart for March 2015 (prices are all in Syrian Pounds):

On 17 February 2017 the Syrian Arab Army backed by the Russian Air Force opened a new offensive against al-Qaboun (below) and Barzeh and eventually sealed them off from the Ghouta.

The only route that remained open was the al-Wafideen crossing; it had been subjected to intermittent, temporary closures, but on 21 March 2017 it too was finally sealed.  The siege of East Ghouta immediately became absolute until the cordon was breached by the renewed SAA offensive in February 2018 and, the following month, by evacuation corridors for the besieged population.

The closure of al-Wafideen had a catastrophic effect.  Here is a second price comparison, this time for May 2017 (when the exchange rate was 500 SYP to $1):

Such price comparisons are inevitably difficult and shot through with all sorts of difficulties, but similar data on food security from the World Food Programme makes it clear that price inflation on this scale made life immensely precarious for those inside the besieged areas – lives then made even more precarious by the escalation of military and paramilitary violence (my next post) and the disruption of medical provision (my final post in this series).  According to the WFP in October 2017:

Since the Al-Wafideen crossing closed in September, all food supply routes to eastern Ghouta have been completely closed. Food prices have soared as a consequence, with particularly grave consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable people. During the WFP market assessment conducted in Kafr Batna (in eastern Ghouta) at the end of October, the remaining food stock was found to be very limited, with severe shortages of staple foods such as rice, pulses, sugar and oil.

Based on the market assessment data, the cost of the standard food basket in October 2017 reached SYP327,000, which is 204 percent higher than in September and more than five times higher than in August 2017 (before the crossing closed). The eastern Ghouta food basket currently is almost ten times more expensive than the national average.

According to key informants, the only available cooking fuel in eastern Ghouta is liquid melted plastic, which costs SYP 3,500/litre – ten times more than the national average price of diesel. Some households also reported burning animal remains and even used diapers to boil vegetables.

A bundle of bread in Kafr Batna is being sold at SYP2,000, which is more than 35 times the average price in accessible markets.

Food security is likely to deteriorate rapidly in the coming weeks if the siege continues. It is estimated that food stocks will be totally depleted by end November 2017.

Local resources and improvisations

Faced with the shortages and high prices imposed by the siege, the people of East Ghouta had limited resources to fall back on (see my previous post here), and these contracted sharply after the Syrian Arab Army finally seized control of the rich agricultural lands in the south of the Ghouta (the Marj) in May 2017, near the start of the harvest season.  People throughout the besieged area were forced to improvise and to devise ever more exacting economies.

The survival strategies listed by the WFP included reducing the number of meals, reducing portion size and limiting adult consumption, but once the siege became absolute – crossings closed, tunnels blown – many were reduced to far worse than those.  The designation of East Ghouta as one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ during the summer of 2017 only opened what Reuters called ‘the doors of starvation’:

‘When people in the Ghouta learned of the deal and thought it would bring relief, many began using up their food reserves at home, said Khalil Aybour, head of the local council in the town of Douma. “After they saw it was all rumors,” he said, “the misery grew immensely.”

Here is a report from November 2017:

The sight of a woman weeping as she drags her malnourished children into a clinic is not rare in eastern Ghouta…. But when one mother told Abdel Hamid, a doctor, that she had fed her four starving children newspaper cutouts softened with water to stop them from screaming into the night, even he was stunned.  “I could try to describe to you how terrible the conditions are in which we are living, but the reality would still be worse,” [he] said.

Another young widow described how she rationed food between her three young daughters:

My girls take turns eating now. We barely have any food so each one eats one meal every three days. It breaks my heart because they go to bed hungry and wake up with no energy.

Stories like these are what lie behind the distanced prose of an interagency assessment of food security conducted for the World Food Programme that same month, which reported:

Due to the lack of available food and the high food needs, a food basket meant to support a five member household for a month [supplied by the UN] is being shared among six different households (approximately 30 people).

Due to lack of staple food commodities and severe shortfall of cooking fuel (firewood, diesel and gas) in addition to their high prices, residents have been reduced to subsist on raw vegetables such as maize corn, cabbage and cauliflower with no more than one meal per day. In many households with multiple mouths to feed, priority is given to children with adults often skipping entire days without eating. Some households are even resorting to rotation strategies whereby the children who ate yesterday would not eat today and vice-versa.

Cases of severe acute malnutrition among children were identified by the UNICEF team…

Three months later, once the offensive started in deadly earnest, the situation deteriorated still further.  By March 2018, when thousands of people were huddled in basements and cellars sheltering from the incessant bombing and artillery fire, some of those that could find food were reluctant to eat in front of other people in the face of such widespread hunger.  Others shared what little they had.

In fact food was the central concern throughout the siege.  In the beginning some residents started to grow vegetables on their roofs to supplement local production and avoid the soaring prices in local markets:

“The blockade has forced us to find alternatives, especially in towns like al-Buwaidah, hijjera, and al-Sbeneh, where all the surrounding farming lands were destroyed, and many farmers were killed,” said Ahmad Abu Farouq, a 19-year-old who lives in Ghouta with his family of nine.

Ahmad said he and his family have turned their 1,600-square-foot (150 sq meter) rooftop into a year-round farm, planting zucchini and pumpkin in the winter, and lettuce and parsley in the summer [see the image below]. “I throw in a mix of eggplant, peppers and cucumbers when I can,” he added.

Eastern Ghouta is frequently and heavily hit by government airstrikes. To protect themselves and their crops, according to Ahmad, most people who have chosen to take up alternative farming find ways to hide their box planters so as not to make them entirely visible from up above.

This proved to be a short-term solution: when the Assad regime cut electricity supply to the Ghouta it had serious spill-over effects, and ‘on rooftops, as in the agricultural fields, the [consequent] lack of an irrigation system providing clean water caused the end of this semi-autonomous way of surviving the siege.’

So fuel was a second major concern, but there too there were improvisations. Mark Hanrahan and Bhassam Khabieh described an elaborate scheme in Douma to convert plastic waste into fuel.  Using methods he learned from YouTube videos, Abu Kassem and his family collected plastic bottles, rubble from damaged buildings, plastic cooking utensils, even plastic water and sewage pipes; they burned them all in a makeshift refinery, and sold the gas for domestic and commercial use or condensed the gas and refined the liquid into fuel for generators and vehicles.

At its height the workshop was running 15 hours a day six days a week; on an average day it burned 800 – 1,000 kg of plastic waste to produce around 850 litres of fuel. This was a dangerous, noxious business:

“Working here is very tiring, but we feel that we are providing a great service to people. I have been working here for a short time and have begun to adapt to the atmosphere here,” said Abu Ahmed, 28, [one] of the workers.

And the products were snapped up:

“When the siege began on eastern Ghouta at the end of 2013 fuel prices rose madly and we were no longer able to water crops as in the past,” Abu Firas, 33, an agricultural worker in the district told Reuters. “When we started producing local fuel, and water engines could be powered by this fuel, … life returned to agricultural land.”

Abu Talal had the same idea:

“We get plastic materials from areas and buildings that are deserted after being shelled by the regime forces. We collect all the plastic we find, such as water tanks and drainage pipes.”

After Talal and his team gather the plastic, they cut it into smaller pieces and put 50 kilograms in each barrel, along with 20 meters of piping to cool the water that runs in and out of the barrel. They contain narrower tubes, which contain the fumes that come from the burned plastic. Then they light a fire.

“It takes two to three hours to extract as much as possible from one batch of plastic,” he says. “In the last stage, we get the temperature to 100 to 115 degrees to extract a kind of diesel. The temperature must be accurate for the diesel to come out and for it to burn well, so it can be used in cars and motorcycles.”

Ammar al-Bushy described a similar operation at Erbin here.  ‘People are aware that the fuel extracted from burning plastic [is of a lower] quality than that extracted from oil,’ he reported, and it ’causes long-term problems for engines, but it meets the purpose for people living in a dire situation, in addition to the lower cost than fuel extracted from oil.’

The economics of the operation were explained by Abu Hassan:

“Gasoline reached the price of 4000-4200 Syrian Pounds ($20-$21), and the amounts available were minimal. However, we found a substitute by heating plastic and extracting methane, gasoline, and diesel.

“The price of diesel was 3200-3500 Syrian Pounds ($16-$18.50) per liter, which is considered very expensiv. So people were no longer able to purchase it, but after we started operating on plastic and started extracting diesel from it, the price decreased to 1200-1500 SP and it became more available.”

There were other manufactories too: there is a remarkably detailed analysis of the manufacture of weapons by Jaish al-Islam here, including improvised mortars, rockets, grenades and rifles.

But my focus here is on those resources basic to civilian survival in the besieged area. There were all sorts of other substitution strategies in East Ghouta  – I’ll deal with the improvisation of medical supplies and anaesthetics in the final post in this series – but the two examples I’ve provided show concerted attempts to devise solutions to the supply shortages and high prices that were the immediate products of the tightening siege.

Those economic conditions were also affected by cross-cordon transactions: by merchants who were allowed to bring goods in through the al-Wafideen checkpoint, and by smugglers who (until the offensives against Barzeh and al-Qaboun) operated a series of clandestine tunnels that gave access to markets on the suburban fringe.  I’ll consider each in turn, but in both cases there was an elaborate administration of precarity: an apparatus of permissions and permits, exactions and kick-backs, through which the local economy was manipulated and political and (para)military relations were managed.

There was another set of cross-border transactions: these were non-commercial flows of humanitarian aid.  The Syrian government put in place an intensely bureaucratic system  to regulate aid convoys which was also part of the administration of precarity.  It proved to be (and was intended to be) so restrictive that these flows had precious little sustained impact on economic conditions in Ghouta.  But, as I’ll show, these transactions were entangled in a wider and intrinsically partisan geography of precarity that magnified the marginality of Ghouta and effectively enlarged the power of the regime to dictate the terms of its ‘surrender or starve‘ strategy.

Merchants and the Million Checkpoint

One of Amnesty International‘s informants described how the importation of food into East Ghouta was slowly restricted:

By April  2013, you were not allowed to take any food into Eastern Ghouta. Security forces would beat women and men when they found bread or vegetables hidden in the boot of the car or under clothes. As I passed by a checkpoint, I remember seeing food piled up and people being beaten up or humiliated. The Syrian authorities did not allow any bread, vegetables, fruits, pasta, sugar or eggs to enter.

As individual transactions were banned, so selected merchants were allowed to organise much larger shipments. The al-Wafideen crossing became the most important external source of food and fuel for East Ghouta – often described as the ‘lung’ through which the Ghouta breathed – and the central figure in commercial transactions through the checkpoint was Mohyeddin al-Manfoush (‘Abu Ayman’), one of what the Economist called ‘Syria’s new war millionaires’: the ‘dairy godfather’.

Before the war Manfoush lived in Mesraba near Douma, where he owned a small herd of cows and a cheese factory, and traded as al-Marai al-Dimashqiya (Damascus Pastures).  Once the siege began he quickly struck a deal with the Syrian government.  The Economist again:

He began to bring cheap milk from rebel territory in Eastern Ghouta to regime-held Damascus, where he could sell it for double the price. The regime received a cut of the profit. Mr Manfoush reinvested his share. He snapped up the region’s best cows and dairy machinery from farmers and businessmen whose livelihoods had been hammered by the siege. As the business evolved, the trucks that left Ghouta with milk and cheese came back laden with the barley and wheat he needed to feed his growing dairy herd there and run the bakeries he bought.

It was immensely profitable; with a captive market of 400,000 people and runaway prices Manfoush not only expanded his business (under the umbrella Manfoush Trading Company) but also moved to a new house in Damascus and even established his own private militia.

Others profited too.  The security forces controlling the crossing (above, in February 2018) received ‘extra payments’ from Manfoush; there have been reports that they charged 200-300 Syrian pounds ($1 – $1.40) and sometimes as much as 750 Syrian pounds for each kilogram of goods passing through the checkpoint.  Local people came to refer to al-Wafideen as ‘the Million Crossing’ because it supposedly generated one million Syrian pounds per hour in bribes for its soldiers and security officers.  In March 2015 researchers were told a fee of one million Syrian pounds allowed a vehicle to pass through the checkpoint.  And Manfoush dispatched convoys not single trucks:

But the kickbacks almost certainly went much higher than those operating the checkpoint.  Roger Asfar has claimed that Manfoush’s web of companies is linked to the business empire of President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad (who also usefully heads the Republican Guard).  Be that as it may, the regime had more than a commercial interest in Manfoush’s transactions because it was able to leverage its control over al-Wafideen and ‘exploit its ability to turn trade on and off in order to sow enmity among [different] rebel [groups].’

The state’s ability to goad its enemies in this way depended not only on the rivalries between different rebel groups, however, but also on those groups’ own stakes in the siege economy.  These derived, in part, from the revenues generated through their ancillary checkpoints.  Many informants testified that another set of ‘fees’ were exacted there, though what eventually became the major rebel group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam [JAI], denied having any stake in Manfoush’s operations at al-Wafideen:

“Manfoush does not serve the Islam Army [JAI], he serves the Ghouta in its entirety,” said the Islam Army official Mohammed Bayraqdar. “Our interests are in harmony with the interests of the people and our relationship is merely that of facilitating his services. If there were another person [who performed the same function], we would provide the same services to him in return for his services to the people of the Ghouta.”

Those ‘facilitations’ and ‘services’ involved granting Manfoush’s convoys safe passage into East Ghouta, and it seems highly unlikely that this was a purely philanthropic gesture.  In June 2015 one of Amnesty International‘s informants explained:

Since the end of 2014, the Army of Islam [JAI] has controlled the supply route from al- Wafedine camp and Ajnad al-Sham, the underground tunnels in Harasta. The Army of Islam is responsible for regulating the prices. During the winter, the Army of Islam collects most of the food supplies from the market, increasing the prices threefold. You sleep one night and wake up the next day to find there is no food and prices are high.  The Army of Islam in collaboration with suppliers store food and non-food items in [its] warehouses. 

Siege Watch was even more blunt in its assessment for May-July 2017: ‘the corrupt trading monopoly run by al-Manfoush at the al-Wafideen checkpoint lined the pockets of the Syrian miilltary and JAI’.

There is no doubt that Jamash al-Islam’s provision of ‘services’, whether corrupt or not, was far from disinterested: facilitating the importation of food, fuel and other supplies gave it leverage over the besieged population. It was able to extend its control over the local labour market in Douma – determining which shops were allowed to open, for example – and gave those on its payroll privileged access to imported goods from its own warehouses. JAI was not the only group to take advantage of the siege economy.  In Harasta, Fajr al-Umma reportedly ‘gave away free food and a tank of propane … in [an] attempt to strengthen its popularity in the area.’  In short, food and fuel became vital currencies not only for the counterinsurgency but also for the insurgency.  ‘Joining one of the armed groups can provide a monthly salary of an average of USD 50,’ Rim Turkmani and her collaborators in the LSE’s ‘Security in Transition’ programme (including Mary Kaldor) found, ‘in addition to food parcels.’  And at times, they continued, ‘fighters are only paid in food.’

Putting all this together, Rim produced this diagram which traces the journey of a loaf of bread from Damascus into East Ghouta and shows how extensive was the system of exchange whose fulcrum was al-Wafideen:

Underground economies

In his detailed analysis of the tunnels excavated and operated by the armed opposition groups in the Ghouta, Aron Lund explains:

Apart from the Wafideen Crossing, the Eastern Ghouta has been supplied through a system of secret tunnels and semi-informal frontline crossings. While the crossings can bring in a far greater volume of trade, the tunnels serve to import goods that are restricted or banned by the government (including fuel, medical supplies, and arms), to move people in and out of the enclave, and to challenge and undercut food prices set by the Wafideen monopolists.

Digging the tunnels was difficult and dangerous work – but in a place where the economy was collapsing, where there were so few jobs to be had, and where some rebel groups resorted to more directly coercive methods of recruitment the work proceeded apace:

Men of Douma work in three shifts a day to finish their job, using primitive tools. “Each worker has one meal – either breakfast with an egg and a piece of bread, or lunch with rice and bread. The digging never stops. When we hit a large rock or anything like it, we turn on the generator and use a jackhammer,” said Abdullah, a tunnel digger. When asked about the reason that men take this job and whether it pays well, Abdullah said: “Many have lost their job because of the ongoing war, so we have no means to earn money to buy food. Prices are also very high because of the prolonged siege. They pay around 1,000 Syrian pounds per worker, which covers the price of a kilo of flour….”

“When we first started digging tunnels, we faced many difficulties; however, we found solutions and continued the operation. For example, we pumped oxygen at certain points inside the tunnels, which is very important for the workers. We also set up pillars inside the tunnel to prevent them from collapsing over the workers, which had happened often earlier, and killed and trapped many workers for many hours before we could rescue them,” said Abu Mahmoud.

There were five main tunnels (I’ve taken most of these details and the maps from a report by Enab Baladi‘s Investigative Unit on ‘The economic map of Ghouta‘).  

The first (the Zahteh or Central Tunnel) ran 800 metres from Harasta under the Damascus–Homs highway to Qaboun; construction was started by Fajr al-Umma towards the end of 2013, and the tunnel opened the following summer.  It soon emerged as ‘the primary [clandestine] artery for the Eastern Ghouta’s siege economy’.

In January 2015 Jaish al-Umma opened a second, parallel tunnel, but Fajr al-Umma soon controlled this route too:

In May 2015 two other rebel groups, Failaq al-Rahman and al-Liwan al-Awwal, dug the so-called ‘Mercy Tunnel’ from Arbin to Qaboun; this was much longer than the previous two (2,800 metres) and wide enough to allow the passage of cars and even Kia 2400 trucks.

In June 2015 Jaish al-Islam constructed a 3km tunnel from Arbin and Zamalka to Qaboun; it too was wide enough to accommodate small trucks.

In September 2015 Falaq al-Rahman joined with Jabhat al-Nusra in Qaboun to establish a third tunnel under its control, the ‘Nour [Light] Tunnel’, from Arbin to Qaboun for foot traffic only.

These were the main tunnels, but several smaller tunnels were dug between the Ghouta and Jobar, and others were dug primarily for (para)military purposes to move personnel, ammunition and armaments.  Other tunnels were dug within the Ghouta as defences against air strikes; they served multiple purposes, not least connecting the dispersed facilities of underground field hospitals (more on this in a later post).  One SAA informant described to Robert Fisk what he saw when he entered Douma in March 2018:

I have never seen so many tunnels. They had built tunnels everywhere. They were deep and they ran beneath shops and mosques and hospitals and homes and apartment blocks and roads and fields. I went into one with full electric lighting, the lamps strung out for hundreds of yards. I walked half a mile through it. They were safe there. So were the civilians who hid in the same tunnels.

The main cross-line tunnels were used for multiple purposes too: but commercial traffic was always an important consideration.

I describe this as commercial not only because the goods were sold at stores inside Ghouta but also because the tunnels provided the groups that controlled them (often through nominally civilian front organisations or ‘foundations’) with income and resources.  This caused considerable jockeying between them;  Aron Lund provides a superbly detailed analysis of the rivalries, deals and counter-deals that ensued.

The tunnels were considerable undertakings.  The director of the organisation set up to operate the Mercy Tunnel told Enab Baladi that it cost 30,000,000 Syrian Pounds each month to cover ‘the expenses of nine Kia 2400 trucks that work between 3 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the salaries of 450 employees, including drivers, workers, administrators, officials and custodians, in addition to security officials.’

There were three streams of commercial transactions.  The first involved the passage of civilians and, like all movement through the tunnels, was closely controlled by the rebel groups.  One of Enab Baladi‘s informants outlined the rules:

Those passing through the tunnels must be born before 1970, since the factions are in need of young fighters.

The person passing must provide clearance from the Unified Judiciary, to prove that there are no cases outstanding against him or her, and a clearance from the Housing Bureau.

Fighters must provide an official permit  (below) from their faction.

All documents must be submitted to the Crossing Office, which will assign the person a date to pass.

Medical emergencies are exempted from the waiting period, but must provide a report from the Unified Medical Bureau.

Under no circumstances are weapons allowed to leave Ghouta.

No goods other than clothes and basic supplies are allowed (not to exceed two bags).

Abu Ali described how he and his family made their escape:

The process of applying to use the tunnel, he said, was strangely bureaucratic for such a risky method of escape: He submitted an official request at a Jaish al-Islam office and was informed two weeks later that it had been granted… [He] and three other families granted access to the tunnel started their journey on a bus from the city of Hamouriyya.

“The bus took us to the city of Arbin. In Arbin, the bus took side streets, so that we wouldn’t be noticed. We finally arrived at a house where our identification cards were checked, and our luggage was searched. We were told that we had to be very careful, so no one would discover where the tunnel was,” he said.

The tunnel “was very tight – there was barely enough room for two people to walk side by side and it was about two meters in height. In addition to lights, the tunnel had turbines for ventilation purposes.”

These rules were never set in stone, still less once the co-operation implied by the ‘Unified Medical Bureau’ and the ‘Unified Judiciary’ [established in the summer of 2014] broke down and in-fighting between the groups controlling the tunnels became commonplace.  Despite the age restrictions, some of them were willing to allow young people to pay for a permit: the cost varied between 100,000 and 200,000 Syrian pounds.  If they wished to escape Qaboun or Barzeh, they would then pay further bribes to the soldiers and security officers controlling the regime’s checkpoints into Damascus.

There was one constant: the rules allowed for the evacuation of medical emergencies but no medical staff – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – were permitted to leave.  In fact it seems unlikely that many serious medical cases were evacuated through the tunnels either. They would not have found better treatment in Barzeh or Qaboun, but during the early stages of the truce some patients were allowed to cross from those besieged districts into Damascus.   Dr Immad al-Kabbani testified that ‘for a period beginning in September 2014 we were able to evacuate a minimum of 20 patients and their families each week’ through the tunnels (and even ‘to send biopsies from cancer patients to cooperative labs in Damascus for diagnosis’) but by March 2016 the clandestine system was already failing. One cancer patient was allowed to leave for radiation therapy which was unavailable at the Dar al-Rahma Center for Cancer in Ghouta, but her journey turned out to be fruitless:

 I received no care at hospitals [in Damascus] so I relapsed and the tumour returned to its previous status. I decided to go back to Eastern Ghouta through the same tunnels to have the chemical doses.

That same month patients were travelling in the opposite direction.  A doctor from the Syrian-American Medical Society testified:

Now, as access to Damascus has been cut off, the 35,000 civilians inside Barzeh have extremely limited access to healthcare, and must travel to East Ghouta to obtain treatment. Even the dialysis patients in Barzeh are traveling to East Ghouta [via the tunnels] to obtain treatment with the extremely limited supplies.

For a time the tunnels were a two-way street of sorts for cancer patients: those who needed chemotherapy were treated at the Dar al-Rahma Center in Ghouta, using medical supplies smuggled through the tunnels [below], while those needing radiotherapy were taken through the tunnels to al-Nawawi hospital in Damascus.  According to the director of the Dar al-Rahma, ‘after the closure of the tunnels, there is no possibility of providing either of the treatments.’

By the time the tunnels were closed in February 2017 the UN estimated that around 80 patients out of 700 estimated to be in need of urgent treatment had been evacuated from East Ghouta through the tunnels.  Some were transferred because there were no specialists available inside the besieged area, others because clinics there had been denied the medicines and equipment needed to treat them.  But the numbers were small when set against the extensive record of seriously injured or ill patients being placed on evacuation lists from the Ghouta only to have their doctors’ requests refused or ignored by the Syrian government.  Once the tunnels were closed ‘all movement of patients was halted.’

The second stream of traffic involved everyday supplies of all kinds, including food and fuel.  Some rebel groups limited their dealings to particular merchants but in every case a tunnel ‘tax’ was levied.  The usual fee seems to have been 10 per cent but there were times when 25 per cent and even 45 per cent of the value of the goods was levied.  The ‘tax’ was paid in cash or in kind: the different factions maintained their own warehouses and usually gave their own fighters and supporters privileged access to the supplies they skimmed from the shipments.  During the first two months that the Mercy Tunnel was in operation, for example, Falaq al-Rahman allegedly ‘filled its warehouses with more than 12 tons of goods, claiming that it had to secure its fighters first.’  As this implies, the totals involved were small – they paled into insignificance alongside the commercial shipments through al-Wafideen – but they provided the armed opposition groups with significant financial gains.  Enab Baladi again, citing one of the directors of the Mercy Foundation:

“Everyone finds in the tunnel the perfect opportunity to make money. Since the very first tunnel was completed, Fajr al-Umma, the faction that had dug the tunnel, took control of all incoming goods and sold them for extremely high prices. In 2014, for example, 1kg of sugar was sold for 60-70 Syrian pounds [around 30 cents] in Damascus, but Fajr al-Umma sold it for 3, 500 Syrian pounds [more than $16] within Ghouta.”

These exactions – and the subterranean monopolies that underwrote them – prompted endless negotiations (and worse) between the groups over shared access.  Kholoud al-Shami suggested that Jabhat al-Nusra planned the Nour Tunnel explicitly to undercut its rivals, bring prices down, and so boost its support among the besieged population.  One local resident told her:

It appears that Nusra’s goal is to reduce the suffering of the besieged residents, who had begun cursing the revolution and the rebels because of Falaq al-Rahman and Fajar al-Umma keeping prices high. All factions want to build up their popular support, which is what Nusra is doing… Local residents have viewed the drastic drop in prices positively and stood in solidarity with Jabhat a-Nusra when Falaq al-Rahman prevented them from selling gasoline at reduced prices when they were still sharing a tunnel.

Similarly, Jaish al-Islam apparently pressured Fajar al-Ummah to lower its prices. It was an intricate and constantly changing story, but running through all these deals was the imbrication of the political with the economic.  The attempts to lower prices were all about more than the high-minded desire to ‘reduce suffering’: they were also aimed at boosting support for one faction over another.

The third stream of traffic consisted of medical supplies.  I have separated these from other supplies because they were categorically barred from the al-Wafidden crossing; even UN convoys with the appropriate authorisations had them removed at the checkpoint.  Yet they were vital.  Inside Ghouta doctors were struggling with often catastrophic injuries from shelling and bombing, and doing their best to treat seriously ill patients with chronic conditions (how often we forget that people still get sick in war zones).  With no provision possible through the overland crossings, doctors had to use the tunnels.  A team from the Union of Free Syrian Doctors worked around the clock in Barzeh to obtain vital medical supplies for hospitals and clinics in Ghouta, but by the time they had paid Syrian Arab Army soldiers controlling checkpoints on the highway and then the tunnel tax – medicines were not exempt but were charged ‘only’ 5 per cent – the costs of even routine medications had soared.  Students from the Columbia School of Journalism reported:

By the time all the fees are paid, the price of medical supplies in Eastern Ghouta “is three times higher, sometimes as much as five times, than what’s in the north or south of Syria,” said [Mahmoud] al-Sheikh [director of the Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in Eastern Ghouta]. A liter of serum, which is used to help the body replenish lost blood, goes for about $1 in regime-controlled areas (one liter is about one fluid quart). But health workers say they’ve paid anywhere from $3.50 to $10 for one liter of serum brought in from Barzeh.

[Osama] Abu Zayd [a medical equipment engineer with the Union of Free Syrian Doctors] estimates that Ghouta, with its many neighborhoods, needs about 10,000 liters (more than 2,600 gallons) of serum per month.

Whatever came through the tunnels, it was never enough, and all three traffic streams came to a juddering halt as the offensive against Barzeh and Qaboun was renewed.  During the winter of 2016-17 the regime sought to amend the terms of the truce, stipulating that the smuggling trade had to stop; then in February 2017 it peremptorily closed the checkpoints so that supplies from Damascus dried up, and within days nothing was moving through the tunnels to Ghouta.

The fighting that followed was protracted and bloody, and thousands fled through the tunnels to find refuge in East Ghouta.  But by the end of February the Syrian Arab Army occupied the warehouse concealing the portal to the Zahteh Tunnel, and by the middle of May, when the remaining opposition fighters in Barzeh and Qaboun had surrendered and the population was forcibly evacuated, all the major tunnels had been breached.  

State media published videos showing the army cutting the tunnels and carrying out controlled explosions.  The ultimate objective was not only to take down Barzeh and Qaboun but ‘to strangle the Ghouta … by closing off the crossings and tunnels,’ a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam explained.  ‘Trade through the tunnels has completely stopped.’

The loss of the tunnels triggered panic buying in Ghouta, driving prices still higher, and triggered a new round of fighting between the two major blocs of rebel fighters (Jaish al-Islam based in Douma and Falaq al-Rahman in fractious and as it turned out temporary alliance with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, which later became Jabhat al-Nusra, which were based in the so-called ‘Central Section’ to the south and the west).

Residents of the Ghouta demonstrated against the infighting – and, in a displaced and horrifying repetition of the tactics employed by regime’s security forces, Jaish al-Islam opened fire on the crowd – and the deepening tension served only to aggravate the economic crisis.  In July 2017 Alaa Nassar reported:

Dozens of recently erected checkpoints and berms split the suburbs [of East Ghouta] in half. For residents trapped inside the Central Section, this means a lack of access to the Wafideen crossing and, therefore, to outside resources.

By September 2017 the Syrian-American Medical Society‘s report on the siege of East Ghouta described a truly dreadful predicament:

In a report for the Middle East Institute, ‘Sieges in Syria: Profiteering from misery‘ (2016) Will Todman summarises the two sets of cross-cordon transactions I’ve described so far – overt commercial transactions through al-Wafideen and clandestine transactions through the tunnels – like this:

It’s an effective summary but, as I now need to show, the bottom line (sic), in which UN convoys are described as ‘an effective means to get goods to civilians at a lower price,’ is problematic.

Aid convoys

Like the commercial convoys of merchandise that were allowed in to East Ghouta, humanitarian aid came in through al-Wafideen (above).  Unlike the commercial flows, however, humanitarian aid was rigorously policed, strictly limited and utterly spasmodic. In Douma, for example, which had been under siege since 2013, the first UN interagency aid convoy did not arrive until 10 June 2016 (below). Its 36 trucks provided emergency food, wheat flour, and nutrition supplies for only 17 per cent of the population.  Those stocks were supposed to last for one month, but the next convoy did not arrive until 19 October 2016, with 44 trucks carrying food supplies for 24 per cent of the population (baby milk had been removed at the checkpoint).  Those supplies were also intended to last for one month, and a third convoy duly arrived at al-Wafideen with supplies for 49 per cent of the population on 17 November 2016.  But the mission was aborted because ‘it lacked specific approval needed to proceed without dog searches and unsealing of the trucks.’  The next UN convoy arrived on 30 October 2017.

I have extracted most of these details from a report prepared by Elise Baker for Physicians for Human Rights with the dismally appropriate title Access Denied.  The report describes a system of deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid by the Assad regime that imposed – by design, remember – ‘slow, painful death by starvation’ on populations in areas besieged by its forces: what the report also calls ‘murder by siege’.

There have been two main modalities of obstruction.  The first has involved a byzantine process through which UN agencies have been required to obtain formal permission from the government to deliver humanitarian aid.  Following the establishment of a joint working group to facilitate (sic) the process in 2014, it was agreed that each convoy would need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ‘facilitation letters’ from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Syrian Arab Crescent and (in the case of medical supplies) the Ministry of Health.  The process was described by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator as ‘extremely complex and time-consuming’, and matters were not improved by the introduction of additional clearance requirements from the High Relief Committee and the National Security Office.

After repeated protests from the UN the Syrian government finally agreed to ‘simplified procedures for the approval of interagency convoys across conflict lines‘ in March 2016, that should have reduced an eight-step process to a two-step process, with all approvals (or refusals) being issued within seven working days.  In practice, the two-step became a ten– or even eleven-step process.  In January 2017 the UN Security Council was advised of ‘subsequent administrative delays on the part of the government, including in the approval of facilitation letters, approval by local governors and security committees, as well as broader restrictions by all parties [that] continue to hamper our efforts’ to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged populations.  Even with approvals from the authorities in Damascus, protocols were routinely violated at checkpoints.   Stephen O’Brien elaborated:

We continue to be blocked at every turn, by lack of approvals at central and local levels, disagreements on access routes, and by the violation of agreed procedures at checkpoints by parties to the conflict. Are these important? Yes. We can’t – and if I may quote – “just plough on” or “just get on with it” as I’ve heard one member sitting around this say table to me. Because if one brave aid worker drives through the checkpoint without the facilitation letter and the command transmitted down the line, the check-point guard or their sniper takes the shot.

In a statement two months later he bluntly declared: ‘The current bureaucratic architecture is at best excessive and at its worst, deliberately intended to prevent convoys from proceeding.’

The second modality of obstruction was to withhold permission altogether.  The chart below was compiled for PHR’s Access denied; notice the substantial differences between the populations for whom the UN requested access and the populations for whom access was approved, a difference that was the product of both outright rejection and a calculated failure to respond.

Notice too the still smaller population eventually reached by the aid convoys:

From May through December 2016, on average, Syrian authorities authorized UN interagency convoys to deliver aid to approximately two thirds of the besieged and hard-to-reach populations that UN authorities requested access to each month – a figure which, in itself, represents a fraction of the entire besieged and hard-to-reach population. However, UN convoys only reached 38 percent of that smaller approved population, due to additional approval procedures and other delays imposed overwhelmingly by government officials…  At worst, this pattern reflects an effort by Syrian authorities to appear cooperative while still ensuring that access to besieged areas remained blocked.

The approval process allowed the authorities not only to veto the populations permitted to receive humanitarian aid but also to restrict the amount and composition of that aid.  In November 2017, for example, a UN convoy of 24 trucks was allowed in to Douma – the first since August – with food for an estimated 21,500 people (the original request had been for supplies for 107,500); medical supplies had been removed from the convoy.  In March 2018 another, much delayed convoy reached Douma with food for 27,500 people (below); deliveries were interrupted by renewed shelling and 10 of the 46 trucks were forced to return with their loads.  Marwa Awad, who accompanied the convoy with the World Food Programme, described what she found:

Volunteers gathered to help offload the aid from the trucks, including WFP’s wheat flour which the men were offloading into underground cellars. Speaking with the local council, we learned that there were more than 200,000 people in Douma, many of them displaced from nearby villages and other areas within Eastern Ghouta, and all of them needing food and medicine….

Leaving the devastation above, we took a long and narrow staircase deep into Douma’s underworld: a network of basements that has become fertile ground for disease and infection.  Many residents are forced to live underground, crammed together in packed spaces to avoid airstrikes…

There we met Mustafa, a man in his twenties.

“The food aid trickles in very slowly, drop by drop. Many families here are struggling. I hope whoever is hungry gets help,” he said. Because of the increasing demand for food and limited quantities allowed inside, residents of Douma have had to split the food assistance WFP delivered during an earlier convoy in order to reach as many people as possible.

The convoy took place at the height of the final military offensive against the Ghouta: yet the World Health Organisation said that Syrian government officials had ordered the removal of 70 percent of the medical supplies it had prepared for the convoy, including all trauma kits, surgical supplies, dialysis equipment and insulin.

The control exercised by the Assad regime over humanitarian aid derived not only from formal procedures, or the subsequent ‘deletions’ and on occasion, even contamination of supplies at checkpoints; it also depended on the system of clandestine intelligence built in to the architecture of the authoritarian state. The head of one UN agency working out of Damascus told one US/UK investigation team:

We were spied on, followed, our computer traffic was monitored, our notebooks stolen, they knew what we were doing. I’m not sure anyone appreciates how hard all of this was . . . the daily grind of getting a tiny concession of access or movements of goods. The SARC [Syrian Arab Red Crescent] were used as a proxy to control and spy on us and contain us.

So many controls.  And yet UN Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014) and 2258 (2015) authorized the unconditional delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, to besieged and hard-to-reach communities countrywide.  The emphasis is mine; the wording is the UN’s.  But the Assad regime clearly called the shots and imposed the most exacting conditions on the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas like the Ghouta.  The UN even deferred to the Syrian government over the identification of what constituted a siege; its mappings of besieged and ‘hard-to-reach’ areas were far more restrictive than those conducted by Siege Watch or the Syrian-American Medical Society.  Its in-country contracts had to be approved by the government, and not surprisingly many of them – individually worth tens of millions of dollars for accommodation, trucks, fuel, and cellphone service – were with businesses closely tied to the Assad regime.   As Reinoud Leenders put it, ‘the Syrian regime’s aggressive assertions of state sovereignty have locked UN aid agencies into a disturbingly submissive role.’

A report from the Syria CampaignTaking Sides – found that humanitarian aid delivered under the auspices of the UN was disproportionately directed towards areas under the direct control of the Assad regime.  Here is the distribution of aid through the World Food Programme – the largest UN agency handling food aid – shortly after the passage of UNSC 2139, revealing what John Hudson described as ‘Assad’s starvation campaign’:

The following month (April 2014) 75 per cent of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled areas.  Two years later (April 2016) 88 per cent of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled territory; once cross-border deliveries from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were taken into account – now authorised by further UN Security Council resolutions – the (dis)proportion going into government-controlled territories fell to 72 per cent.  But by April 2017 it had increased to 82 per cent.  

Still, these raw figures conceal as much as they reveal; humanitarian aid for government-controlled areas has not been subject to the same restrictions, deletions and delays as aid for areas outside the regime’s direct control.  Convoys were far more frequent, loads were larger, and medical supplies were not removed.  The Assad regime frequently represented aid to areas under its control as both a gift from the government (through granting access to international agencies) and a gift of the government: at its highest levels, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (a central and compulsory actor in these deliveries) is a de facto arm of the state.  There was and continues to be an undoubted need for aid throughout Syria, but according to the UN’s own figures 54 per cent of the population in need lived in government-controlled areas in 2016.  Accordingly, Taking Sides argues that 

The effective subsidy of government areas releases resources that are likely used by the government in its war effort. The UN has enabled one side in the conflict to shift more of its resources away from providing for the needs of its people and into its military campaign.

The official position was always that the UN had to comply with the Assad regime’s predilections and stipulations as a necessary price for access to the besieged areas, but David Miliband (President of the International Rescue Committee) countered that ‘the Assad regime can’t afford to kick the UN out of Damascus [because] the UN is feeding so many of [Assad’s] own people.’  

Conversely, the carefully calibrated restrictions placed by the regime on flows of goods through al-Wafideen into the Ghouta amounted to an assertion of continued control over the besieged population.  Esther Meinghaus [‘Humanitarianism in intra-state conflict: aid inequality and local governance in government and opposition-controlled areas in the Syrian war’, Third World Quarterly 37 (8) (2016) 1454-82] argues that in those areas where the regime was not able to maintain military control it exercised effective ‘humanitarian control’ by continuing to dictate the parameters within which the population lived (and died).  In consequence, like Esther, José Ciro Martinez and Brett Eng [‘The unintended consequences of emergency food aid: neutrality, sovereignty and politics in the Syrian civil war, 2012-15’, International Affairs 92 (1) (2016) 153-73; also available here] describe besieged areas like the Ghouta as spaces of exception.  They reveal a persistent attempt by the Assad regime to separate those ‘included in a juridical order and those stripped of juridical-political protections – a separation between life that is politically qualified and one that is “bare” or naked.’  But as José and Brett emphasise, actors inside the Ghouta (and outside) have repeatedly called into question the actions of the Syrian government and its allies and sought to confound them.   The political salience of those counter-strategies is itself compromised, they insist, by treating humanitarian aid as a ‘neutral’ and essentially technical matter of alleviating physical distress and deprivation – the register within which UN agencies conceive their interventions – because that is to become complicit in the reduction of besieged populations to ‘bare life’: ‘Those receiving assistance are valued strictly in terms of their biological life not their political voice’ (p. 165).

The administration of precarity

Throughout this essay I’ve written about ‘the administration of precarity’ because – following David Nally‘s wonderful example – the siege economy was administered by multiple actors whose regulations and restrictions made them responsible for delivering precarity to the besieged population.  That the Assad regime and its allies had a direct interest in doing so followed directly from their strategy of ‘surrender or starve’, and there was an elaborate web of exactions and extortions reaching from the highest levels of the state down to the foot soldiers who controlled the checkpoints and crossings.  The rebel groups were involved too, but they had a more direct interest in the subterranean smuggling economy, levying fees in cash or in kind on flows through the tunnels to boost their coffers and secure their own supporters.  But the United Nations and its agencies were also culpable in acceding to the demands of the Assad regime, allowing it to funnel most humanitarian aid to areas under its control and condemning the civilian populations in besieged areas to half-chance lives of ever increasing precarity.

Yet precarity does not mean passivity, and a ‘siege economy’ is always more than a political economy: it is also and always what E.P. Thompson would have called a moral economy.  The rebel groups in the Ghouta were chronically incapable (or uninterested) in finding common ground, and their support amongst the besieged population was uneven and variable.  As the siege wore on, protests against their exactions and impositions – and the infighting amongst them – multiplied.  For all that, many (and probably most) civilians remained opposed to the Assad regime, and we should remember too that the war emerged out of the violent response of the state to peaceful protests by ordinary people in the Ghouta and elsewhere calling for democratic reforms.  This matters because as I worked on this essay – watching the videos, reading the reports, unearthing the testimonies – I became aware of an extraordinary resilience and communal solidarity forged within the population.  I think of the ingenuity of the rooftop farmers, the fuel distillers, and the makers of gauze and medicines; the dedication of the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and rescue workers faced with so many grievously wounded and seriously ill people; the courage of mothers sharing blankets and what little food they had and singing songs and sharing stories as they huddled with their children in the crowded basements sheltering from the bombs and missiles (see here).

I wrote those words last night; this morning I read this moving letter from the Syria Campaign on ‘Leaving Ghouta‘:

Over the past five years, Ghouta has faced terrible violence including the sarin gas chemical attack that took the lives of hundreds in their sleep. And despite it all they have taught the world a lesson in courage and resilience. When the regime lost control of Ghouta its people built new forms of local governance and held free elections for the first time in Syria’s history. When the bombs started falling on neighbourhoods its teachers and doctors took schools and hospitals underground and ordinary residents put on white helmets and rushed to rescue their friends and neighbours. The people of Ghouta launched inspiring civil society projects, often women-led. They created new media platforms and produced award-winning photojournalism. They created alternative energy resources and introduced new farming techniques.

But after this latest, relentless onslaught, people were truly left with no choice. If they remained in Ghouta they risked being detained and tortured as the Syrian regime closed in, particularly the ones who decided to teach, treat the wounded, or post updates to Facebook. So now many are leaving behind everything they’ve ever known to go to a place that isn’t that much safer. The province of Idlib, home to more than two million, is also being struck from the air by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally.

If only the ‘international community’ had been even half the community created by these brave men and women.

To be continued

Trauma Geographies

I’ve been invited to give the Antipode lecture at the RGS/IBG conference on 29 August.  Here’s the abstract:

Trauma Geographies: broken bodies and lethal landscapes  

Elaine Scarry reminds us that even though ‘the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring’ this ‘massive fact can nevertheless ‘disappear from view along many separate paths.’ This presentation traces some of those paths, exploring the treatment and evacuation of the injured and sick in three war zones: the Western Front in the First World War, Afghanistan 2001-2018, and Syria 2012-2018. The movement of casualties from the Western Front inaugurated the modern military-medical machine; it was overwhelmingly concerned with the treatment of combatants, for whom the journey – by stretcher, ambulance, train and boat – was always precarious and painful. Its parts constituted a ‘machine’ in all sorts of ways, but its operation was far from smooth. The contrast with the aerial evacuation and en route treatment of US/UK casualties in Afghanistan is instructive, and at first sight these liquid geographies confirm Stephen Pinker’s progressivist theses about ‘the better angels of our nature’ [see also here]. But this impression has to be radically revised once Afghan casualties are taken into account – both combatant and civilian – and it is dispelled altogether by the fate of the sick and wounded in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. For most of them treatment was dangerous, almost always improvised and ever more precarious as hospitals and clinics were routinely targeted and medical supplies disrupted, and evacuation impossible as multiple sieges brutally and aggressively tightened. Later modern war has many modalities, and the broken bodies that are moved – or immobilised – in its lethal landscapes reveal that the ‘therapeutic geographies’ mapped so carefully by Omar Dewachi and others [see here and here] continue to be haunted by the ghosts of cruelty and suffering that stalked the battlefield of the American Civil War in the years following Lincoln’s original appeal to those ‘better angels’.

The presentation will tie together several strands I’ve laid out in posts on Geographical Imaginations; the next installment of my analysis of siege warfare and geographies of precarity in Syria will appear shortly.

Mass Murder in Slow Motion (I): East Ghouta

This is the first of a series of posts – continuing my discussions of Cities under Siege in Syria here, here and here – that will examine the siege of East Ghouta in detail.

Today I begin with some basic parameters of East Ghouta, and in subsequent posts I’ll focus on three issues: the siege economy and geographies of precarity; military and paramilitary violence, ‘de-escalation’ and the endgame; and – the hinge linking these two and continuing my work on ‘the death of the clinic‘  – medical care under fire.

From paradise to hell on earth

Eastern Ghouta (‘Ghouta Orientale’ on the map from Le Monde above; ‘Damas’ is of course Damascus) has often been extolled as ‘a Garden of Eden’, ‘an earthly paradise’ and an ‘oasis’.  In the fourteenth century Ibn al-Wardi described the Ghouta as ‘the fairest place on earth’:

. . . full of water, flowering trees, and passing birds, with exquisite flowers, wrapped in branches and paradise-like greenery. For eighteen miles, it is nothing but gardens and castles, surrounded by high mountains in every direction, and from these mountains flows water, which forms into several rivers inside the Ghouta.

Before the present wars much of the Ghouta was a rich, fertile agricultural landscape, a mix of small farms producing wheat and barley, fruits and vegetables (notably tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini), and raising herds of dairy cattle whose milk and other products fed into the main Damascus markets.  Most arable production depended on irrigation delivered through a de-centralised network of water pumps, pipes and channels.

The agrarian economy was seriously disrupted by the siege imposed by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies from 2012.  The siege varied in intensity, but in its first report Siege Watch described the importance – and insufficiency – of these local resources:

While much of the population in Eastern Ghouta has become dependent on local farming 
for survival, the volume and variety of crops that are being produced is still insufficient for 
the population, since modern mechanized farming methods to water and harvest crops are unavailable and new seeds must be smuggled in. Some of the main crops being produced include wheat, barley, broad beans, and peas. The communities closest to Damascus are more urban areas with little arable land, so there is an uneven distribution of locally produced food within besieged Eastern Ghouta. Humanitarian conditions deteriorate in the winter when little locally produced food is available and prices increase.

Cutting off the electricity supply and limiting access to fuel also compromised vital irrigation systems (and much more besides), and many local people had to turn to wood for heating and cooking which resulted in extensive deforestation.

By November 2015 the price of firewood had soared:

Abu Ayman, an official in the Kafr Batna Relief Office, said that a family consisting of six people usually requires about 5 kg of firewood per day, costing up to 15,000 Syrian pounds (around $50) a month.
Fruitless trees are our first source of firewood, as well as the destroyed houses in the cities of Jobar, Ain Tarma and Harasta,” says Asaad, a firewood seller in the town of Jisreen…
Abu Shadi, the Director of Agricultural Office, said: “The orchards of Ghouta, known historically for their intense beauty, are on their way to desertification. Another year of the siege is enough to do so, especially since the urgent need for fuel prompted some people to cut down these trees without the knowledge of their owners.”

 

The military and paramilitary campaigns, the threats from mortars, snipers and bombs to workers in the fields, combined with a worsening drought (which made those irrigation pumps all the more important) to reduce agricultural production.  And as the regime’s forces advanced so the agricultural base available to the besieged population contracted.  (The reverse was also true: the regime desperately needed to regain access to its old ‘breadbaskets’, most of which were in rebel areas outside its control).

Much of the destruction of food resources was deliberate.  This from Dan Wilkofsky and Ammar Hamou in June 2016, shortly after the Syrian Arab Army captured wheat fields in the south of the region:

Residents of East Ghouta, where a half-million people have been encircled by the Syrian military and its allies, say the government is targeting their food supply as much as it is trying to gain ground. They say that weeks after capturing the area’s breadbasket, a stretch of farmland hundreds of acres wide, the government is using airstrikes and mortar attacks to start fires in the fields that remain in rebel hands [see photograph below].

“People gather the wheat and heap it up, only for the regime to target the piles and burn them,” Khalid Abu Suleiman…  said on Thursday from the al-Marj region.

Fires have spread quickly through wheat fields sitting under the June sun. “When wheat turns yellow, the regime can spot it easily and a small shell is enough to burn the harvest,” Douma resident Mohammed Khabiya said on Thursday.

 

I’ll have much more to say about all this – and the survival strategies and smuggling routes that emerged in response – in my next post, but memories of the bounty of the region haunt those who inhabit its now ruined landscape.  ‘The area was once known for its intense carpet of fruit trees, vegetables and maize,’ wrote a former resident last month, but today ‘Ghouta is a scene of grey death.’  And here is a local doctor talking to the BBC just last weekend:

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death…  It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.  “They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me it was a paradise on the Earth.” Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy”. “It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Political rebellion and political violence

In the 1920s the Ghouta was a springboard for Syrian nationalism and its ragged, serial insurgency against French colonial occupation –  ‘its orchards and villages provided sustenance for the insurgency of 1925’, wrote Michael Provence in his account of The Great Syrian Revolt, while hundreds of villagers in the Ghouta were killed or executed during the counterinsurgency.  He continued:

Despite months of agitation and countless pamphlets and proclamations, the French bombardment of Damascus ended any organized mobilization in the city. The city’s destruction indelibly underscored the inability of the urban elite to lead resistance. But the effects of the bombardment were not what [French] mandate authorities had hoped. Resistance shifted back to the Ghuta and the surrounding countryside. The destruction of their city failed to pacify the population with fear and led to an outraged expansion of rebel activity, especially among the more humble inhabitants. Guerrilla bands soon gained control of the countryside on all sides of the city. They continually cut the lines of communication by road, telephone, and train, on all sides of the city Damascus went days on end virtually cut off from outside contact. Large areas of the old city were in rebel hands night after night. Contemporary sources document that the southern region was completely under the control of the insurgents. It took more than a year, and massive reinforcements of troops and equipment, for the mandatory power to regain effective control of the countryside of Damascus.

(You can find much more on French counterinsurgency and colonial violence in David Nef‘s Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: insurgency, space and state formation (Cambridge, 2012)).

Abu Ahmad, an activist from Kafr Batna, recalling that ‘Eastern Ghouta has always been at the heart of revolutionary struggles in Syria’, drew a direct line of descent from the Syrian Revolt to the mass mobilisations against the Assad regime during the Arab Spring.  He insisted that the contemporary rebellion in the Ghouta had retained its independent spirit:  keeping its distance from international power-brokers, so he claimed, it was ‘one of the last arenas of a real civil war’ – so much so, that its fall ‘would spell the end of the original battle between the government and the opposition.’

This time around these have been vigorously urban as well as rural movements.  After independence from France in 1946, in the north and west of the Ghouta, closer to Damascus, agriculture gave way to a peri-urban fringe: a scatter of hard-scrabble, cinder and concrete block towns (above).  Aron Lund takes up the story:

Wheat fields were crisscrossed by roads and power lines, while factories, army compounds, and drab housing projects spread out of the city and into the countryside. The ancient oasis seemed destined to disappear.

Douma, which had for hundreds of years been a small town of mosques and Islamic learning, grew into a city in its own right. Many villages were swallowed up by the capital, with, for example, Jobar—once a picturesque multi-religious hamlet where Muslims and Jews tended their orchards—transformed into a series of mostly unremarkable city blocks on the eastern fringes of Damascus….

Throughout the first decade of the new century, slum areas around Damascus expanded rapidly as the capital and its satellite towns took in poor migrants, while spiraling living costs forced parts of the Damascene middle class to abandon the inner city for a congested daily commute. It was as if every driver of anti-regime resentment in the late Assad era had congregated on the outskirts of Damascus: political frustration, religious revanchism, rural dispossession, and downward social mobility.

When the Arab uprisings swept into Syria in March 2011, the comparatively affluent and carefully policed central neighborhoods of the capital hardly stirred—but the Ghouta rose fast and hard in an angry, desperate rebellion.

The scenario was a bleakly familiar one, and followed the script established by the security forces in response to protests in Dara’a, close to the border with Jordan, in February 2011 (see here and here).  One of the most serious incidents took place after Friday prayer on 1 April, when protesters emerged from the Great Mosque in Douma to join a demonstration against the regime (above) in the central square.  They were greeted by hundreds of riot police, who fired teargas into the crowd, beat protesters with sticks and shocked bystanders with cattle prods.  Towards the middle of the afternoon the violence escalated; rocks were thrown by some demonstrators, and the police (including snipers on the rooftops) opened fire with Kalashnikovs: 15 and perhaps as many as 22 people were killed and hundreds injured.  According to one local journalist:

“This was the systematic killing of peaceful and unarmed citizens by security forces,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, one of several organisations that has collated matching witness accounts of the incident.

Witnesses [said] that thugs were bussed in by government forces to attack demonstrators [These armed thugs act as a private pro-Assad militia, known in Syria as al- Shabeha, ‘the ghosts’]. Journalists and diplomats were prevented from reaching the area over the weekend, and phone lines to Damascus have been disrupted.

In another familiar response, the same journalist reported that state news agencies had claimed that ‘armed groups’ had opened fire and that some of the demonstrators ‘had daubed their clothes with red dye to make foreign reporters believe that they had been injured.’

Local people encircled the Hamdan hospital to try to prevent the security forces gaining access to the wounded seeking treatment.  One local source told Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand:

“This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by secret service…

“We held the line until live fire was used and we had to run and hide. I saw the secret police break into the hospital and later when I went back to the hospital some of the bodies and some of the injured were missing.”

The National Hospital and the al-Noor Hospital were also raided by security forces on 1 April searching for injured protesters.  And, taking another leaf from the Dara’a playbook, all doctors were ordered to refuse treatment to the wounded; those discovered to have disobeyed were arrested, including the director of Hamdan.

The protests gathered momentum, and by September the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army had formed in Eastern Ghouta – ‘ostensibly’, Amnesty International said, ‘to protect the protesters from Syrian government forces.’

By the time Christine Marlow reported from Douma in December 2011 the city was cordoned off from Damascus by six military checkpoints (above: a Syrian Arab Army checkpoint at Douma in January 2012) and the town was effectively under martial law:

Military trucks stood parked at the end of the dark empty street. The electricity was cut, the phone signals out and apartment windows boarded up with whatever wood or metal people could find. It was to stop the bullets, activists explained. Shouting and chanting of “down down Bashar al Assad” could be heard in the distance, interspersed with the crackle of gunfire.  This is not Homs, Idlib, or any of those Syrian towns that for months have been in the throes of rebellious unrest and violent crackdown. This is Douma, a large satellite town on the edge of Damascus, the heartland of support for President Assad’s regime.

Damascus Old City continues in relative normality with the bustle of daily life. Occasional power cuts and a shortage of gas are the principal signs that all is not well.  But less than seven miles away, Douma is in lockdown. Every Friday – when protests traditionally take place after prayers in the mosques, the suburb is under a military siege.

… Residents had flooded the side streets and mud paths that riddle the town. Doors of homes were left ajar, an invitation of shelter to the demonstrators. Locals passed warnings to each other; “there are dogs in that street”, they said, referring to the army.

 The military was on edge – protesting voices of just 10 or so people was enough to prompt gunfire….

She visited a central hospital – I don’t know whether this was the Hamdan again – and found it dark and empty.  She was told that soldiers had stormed the hospital in the dead of night.  Again, I don’t know if this refers to the previous incident; I do know that Hamdan was raided several times, but so too were other hospitals in Douma: see the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria here.

Staff, who had been tipped off, ran to hide the wounded protesters.  “We grabbed the injured, we dragged them from the back door and down the side streets,” he recalled. “We kept some in the homes of sympathisers, others – those who could move – fled. Others hid inside cupboards in the hospital. Otherwise we think they would be killed.”

Activists say hundreds of people have been injured in the months of protests. Now they are tended by volunteers working in secret clinics inside sympathisers’ homes, with whatever medicine can be smuggled in. It is not enough. Mohammed, whose name has also been changed for his protection, received a heavy blow to the head from a security official during a protest in May. With no utensils or materials, doctors in the home clinic to which he was taken were forced to staple together the gaping, bleeding wound using a piece of old wire.

This too, as I will show in a later post, was a harbinger of the desperate future, in which hospitals would be systematically bombed,  medical supplies routinely removed from humanitarian convoys, and doctors – like everyone else – thrown back on their own limited resources and improvisations.

The siege of Douma – and of East Ghouta more generally – tightened, and by early 2013 the region was under the control of 16 armed opposition groups.  Theirs was a complex and volatile political geography and, as I will show in my next post, their fortunes were closely tied to their involvement in the siege economy.  They enjoyed considerable though not unconditional nor unwavering support from local people, but this too was a complicated and changing situation.  The Assad regime, its allies and agents have often portrayed the besieged population as homogeneous,  particularly after displacement reduced East Ghouta from 1.5 million to around 400,000 inhabitants at the height of the siege.  In another iteration of ‘the extinction of the grey zone‘ practiced across the absolutist spectrum – from right-wing radicals in the US to Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – they all became ‘terrorists’.  That term was made to cover a lot of baggage, including anyone who was involved in any form of resistance to the authority of the state. But even within that shrivelled sense of political legitimacy, it’s important to remember throughout the discussions that follow that there were also hundreds of thousands of civilians who were caught in the cross-fire between pro-government forces and the armed opposition groups.

Dying and the Douma Four

I do not mean that last sentence as a standard disclaimer, and the most direct way I can sharpen the point is by giving space to the (too short) story of a small group of courageous activists who made their home in Douma during the siege:

The savage repression of the Assad regime had made it impossible for the people to continue with their non-violent protests. They started to carry arms, and with that, their need for an ideology of confrontation and martyrdom started to eclipse their earlier enthusiasm for forgiveness and reconciliation.

For many civilian activists, the transformation of the Syrian uprising into what seemed like a full-blown civil war was unbearable. Of those who escaped death or detention, many decided to flee the country; and, from the bitterness of their exile, they began to tell a story of loss and disillusionment. But for Razan, Wael, and many of their close friends, these same developments called for more, not less, engagement. They argued that civilian activists had the responsibility now to monitor the actions of the armed rebels, to resist their excesses, and to set up the institutions for good governance in the liberated parts of the country. They also believed, much like their friend the renowned writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, that their task as secularists was not to preach ‘enlightenment’ from a safe distance, but to join the more ordinary and devout folk in their struggle for a life lived with dignity. Only then could liberal secularism earn its ‘place’ in Syrian society and truly challenge its primordialist detractors.

It was these beliefs that set Razan Zaitouneh on her last journey in late April 2013. After two years of living underground in Damascus, she followed the example of Yassin al-Haj Saleh and moved to the liberated town of Douma. There, among a starving population that was constantly under shelling by the regime forces, Razan launched a project for women empowerment and a community development center, all while continuing her work in documenting and assisting the victims of the war. By August, al-Haj Saleh had already left for the north, but his wife Samira al-Khalil, Razan and her husband, and their friend, the poet and activist Nazem Hammadi were all settled in Douma, sharing two apartments in the same building. In the middle of the night of December 9 [2013], they were abducted from their new homes by a group of armed men that were later linked to Al-Nusra front and the Army of Islam. To this day, their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

You can find out more about the Douma 4 here and here.  Samira al-Khalil‘s diary of the siege of Douma in 2013 has already appeared in Arabic, and will be published in English translation later this year.

Samira wrote this in her diary:

“The world does not interfere with the fact that we are dying, it controls the ways we are dying: it does not want us dead with chemical weapons but does not protest our killing by starvation, closes the borders in the face of those who are escaping certain death with their children.  It leaves them to drown in their flimsy boats—a communal death in the sea, similar to the communal death by the chemical weapon.”

And those who remained inside East Ghouta, as the header to this post says, were all dying slowly.  As one aid worker inside East Ghouta put it yesterday, what has happened since has been ‘wholesale slaughter witnessed by a motionless world.’

To be continued.

Silent Witnesses

I’m still working on the mass murder in slow motion that is Ghouta; there’s so much to see, say and do that my promised post has been delayed.  Most readers will know of the stark declaration issued by UNICEF last month:

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.  Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?

 

One of Allan Pred‘s favourite quotations from Walter Benjamin was this: ‘I have nothing to say.  Only to show.’  And perhaps the broken, mangled shards of montage are the most appropriate way to convey the collision of medieval and later modern violence that is sowing Syria’s killing fields with so many injured, dying and dead bodies.

You might think it’s always been so: in 1924 Ernst Friedrich introduced his collection of war photographs by insisting that ‘in the present and in the future, all the treasure of words is not enough to paint correctly the infamous carnage.’

These are suggestive claims, but two riders are necessary.  First,  images have such an extraordinary, if often insidious, subliminal power – even in our own, image-saturated culture – that they demand careful, critical interrogation and deployment.  They don’t speak for themselves.  And second, Benjamin described his method as ‘literary montage’: as Allan knew very well, words do not beat a silent retreat in the face of the image, and it’s in concert that the two produce some of their most exacting effects.

 In the course of my work on war in Syria and elsewhere I’ve encountered (and drawn upon) the work of many outstanding photographers; in some cases their images seem out-of-time, almost transcendent testimony to the enduring realities of war, while others disclose new horrors erupting in the midst of the all-too-bloody-familiar.  I think, for example, of the work of Narciso Contreras (see above and below, and also here and his collection, Syria’s War: a journal of pain, War Photo, 2014) – and I do know about the controversy over editing/cropping – or Nish Nalbandian (see also here and here and his book, A whole world blind: war and life in northern Syria, Daylight Books, 2016).

 

In my research on other conflicts I’ve also learned a lot from war artists, and in the case of Syria from graphic journalism: see, for example, the discussion by Nathalie Rosa Bucher here and the example of Molly Crabapple here. (Her work was based on cell-phone videos sent to her by a source inside IS-controlled Raqqa: another digital breach of siege warfare in Syria).

 

The point of all of this is to emphasise my debt to multiple (in this case, visual) sources that enable me – sometimes force me –  to see things differently: to turn those broken shards around, to have them catch the light and illuminate the situation anew.  And to see things I’d often rather not see.

 

It’s not a new experience. When I was completing The colonial present I was given access to a major image library, and in the course of three exhilarating days I learned more about Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq than I had learned in three months of reading. The image bank included not only published but also unpublished images, which revealed aspects, dimensions, whole stories that had been left unremarked and unrecorded in the public record produced through editorial selection.

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

The Syrian Archive is a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the conflict in Syria with the goal of creating an evidence-based tool for reporting, advocacy and accountability purposes.

 

Its emphasis on visual documentation and analysis needs to be seen alongside the investigations of Forensic Architecture and bellingcat.

 

The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.

We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. Such documentation can humanise victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.

Visual documentation is also valuable during conflict as it can feed into:

  • Humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contribute to the protection of civilians;
  • Mechanisms that support increased legal compliance by conflict parties and reductions in civilian harm;
  • Strengthening advocacy campaigns and legal accountability through building verified sets of materials documenting human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.

User-generated content is valuable during times of conflict. Verified visual documentation can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contributing to the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, visual documentation allows the Syrian Archive to tell untold stories through amplifying the voices of witnesses, victims and others who risked their lives to capture and document human rights violations in Syria. Not every incident in the Syrian conflict has been reported by journalists. The very challenging conditions have made it extremely difficult for local and especially international media to work in Syria, meaning the many incidents have been missed or under-reported.

Visual documentation aims to strengthen political campaigns of human rights advocates by providing content that supports their campaign. This could include content on the violation of children’s rights; sexual and gender based violence; violations against specifically protected persons and objects, or the use of illegal weapons.

Additionally, visual documentation aims to help human rights activists and Syrian citizens in setting up a memorialisation process and to create dialogues around issues related to peace and justice, to recognise and substantiate the suffering of citizens and provide multiple perspectives on the conflict that acts to prevent revisionist or simplified narratives while raising awareness of the situation in the country and highlighting the futility of violence to next generations. Video and images often compliments official narratives and press accounts of an event or situation, adding both detail and nuance. At other times, they directly rebut certain factual claims and contradict pervasive narratives.

 

Many of the videos on which this visual analysis relies (me too) were uploaded to YouTube.  Armin Rosen reports:

 

Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, knows how significant its platform has been during the war. “The Syrian civil war is in many ways the first YouTube conflict in the same way that Vietnam was the first television conflict,” Justin Kosslyn, the product manager for Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, said during an interview on the sidelines of September’s Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where Kosslyn had just spoken. “You have more hours of footage of the Syrian civil war on YouTube then there actually are hours of the war in real life.” In 2016, Jigsaw developed Montage, a Google Docs-like application that allows for collaborative analysis of online videos. Kosslyn said the project was undertaken with human rights-related investigations in mind.

The value of YouTube’s Syria videos is indisputable, especially since the regime and other armed actors have closed off much of the country to journalists and human rights observers. [Eliot] Higgins and his colleagues [at Bellingcat] proved beyond all doubt that Assad’s forces gassed a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, and a U.N. organization is now in the early stages of assessing YouTube’s Syria footage for its future use in war crimes trials. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in war crimes prosecutions related to Syria. In connection with the IIIM, Hiatt and his team at Benetech are developing software that can search and organize the estimated 4 million videos related to the conflict. The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.

Last summer YouTube started deleting videos that violated its Terms of Service; the platform used algorithms to flag the offending materials and within days some 900 Syria-related channels were removed.

Alarm bells rang; here’s Chris Woods of Airwars talking to the New York Times:

“When the conflict in Syria started, independent media broke down and Syrians themselves have taken to YouTube to post news of the conflict…  What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war.”

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

After the concerted protests many of the videos were restored, but the cull continued and by the end of the year more than 200 channels providing over 400,000 videos had been removed.  Again, some of those were subsequently restored, but the Syrian Archive estimates that more than 200,000 videos are still offline.

 

 

The intervention was the product of an understandable desire to remove ‘propaganda’ videos – part of the fight back against ‘fake news’ – but here’s the rub:

Videos from the conflict could prove critical in cases where they might violate the site’s ToS—even ISIS propaganda videos help identify members of the organization and explain its internal hierarchies. “The difficulty in this type of work is that the information put out there on social media by the perpetrators of the violence can also be used to hold those perpetrators accountable,” Shabnam Mojtahedi [a legal analyst with the Syria Justice and Accountability Center: see also here for its statement on this issue] notes.

And it’s not just YouTube.  In an extended report for The Intercept Avi Asher Schapiro detected

a pattern that’s causing a quiet panic among human rights groups and war crimes investigators. Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court,  where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

As Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst with Amnesty International and a founder of Citizen Evidence Lab put it, these social media platforms are ‘essentially privately-owned evidence lockers’.  And that should worry all of us.

Digital breaches

In my latest posts on the wars in Syria – Cities under Siege here and here – I tried to open a space for the voices of those inside the siege lines.  To supplement those discussions, I want to notice two other digital breaches of siege lines, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in East Ghouta in Damascus.

Although the Syrian regime has been either unwilling or unable to prevent digital access to the world outside its barricades (no doubt for a variety of reasons), Islamic State has persistently sought to isolate the communities it controls from within.  For example:

In Mosul, Omar Mohammed – a 31 year-old ‘stealth historian‘ – risked his life to chronicle life under IS in a remarkable series of posts: Mosul Eye.  When he lost his job teaching ancient history at the university in June 2014 he started an anonymous blog and became the eponymous ‘Mosul Eye’.

Lori Hinnant and Maggi Michael reported for AP:

Anonymous for more than three years, Mohammed wandered the streets of occupied Mosul by day, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by the extremists. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

By night, he was Mosul Eye, and from his darkened room he told the world what was happening. If caught, he knew he would be killed.

Writing in the New Yorker in October 2016,  Robin Wright explained that Mosul Eye

provided details about life under the caliphate—initially offering hourly reports regarding roads around Mosul that were safe to travel, and then, in the following weeks, reporting on the dawning anxiety about the heavily armed ISIS fighters, the power blackouts, the rising prices, the chaos in local markets, the panic over food shortages, and the occupiers’ utter brutality. Over the next year, Mosul Eye expanded into a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The posts were determinedly stoic—melancholic and inspiring at once.

For the past two weeks, as Mosul has become the epicenter of a new U.S.-backed offensive to defeat ISIS—also known as ISIL—Mosul Eye has been posting dozens of times a day on its social-media outlets. On Monday, it tweeted, “Today, Mosul has entered the atmosphere of the war. The bombardment is continuous on many areas of the city, specifically the southern and northeastern outskirts of the city.”

Mohammed paid smugglers to arrange his escape, and once outside of Mosul he eventually revealed his identity; it was not an easy decision but once he had made it, he said, he finally felt free.

Most of the published interviews with Mohammed took place once he was outside Mosul and his identity was known, but Wright managed to reach him over social media inside the besieged city and her report addressed the key questions of provenance and credibility:

Iraqis and Mideast scholars believe that the site is for real. Rasha al Aqeedi, a scholar from Mosul who now writes from Dubai, told me that “the information is reliable,” and added, “The perspective and ideology, however, reflect Mosul’s young intelligentsia: the will to review Islam and question religious texts and the fault lines along historic narratives.”

But the same questions dogged the two AP journalists en arrière, once they had met with him and he revealed his identity.  Here is their detailed response:

Omar gave us databases from his hard drive tracking the dead, noting daily events in Mosul. Each one was a separate file — totaling hundreds of files. The origin dates on each matched the date of the file, or at most was one or two days away from it. For his account of the day on the Tigris, he gave us multiple photos and a video from the day, each with an origin date in March 2015, which was when he said the events had happened. On Google Maps, he showed us the curve in the river where he picnicked, and zoomed on the marshy areas to show how it matched up with his account. As for himself blogging inside a dark room in his house in Mosul, he provided a video that AP used. He used maps to show his escape route. He showed on Google a list of the top students from his high school in Mosul, and his name was among the top five.

On the third day, just before we filmed over the course of about 90 minutes, he stepped away to make a phone call, in English, to announce that in a few minutes he would be shedding his anonymity as he didn’t want to be anonymous anymore. He showed us footage from his thesis defense, in which one of the professors accused him of secularism.

After the meetings, we asked Omar for contact information for his thesis advisor, who was among the few to figure out his identity during the early days of Mosul Eye; his younger brother, who he had told over the summer; activists and volunteers he worked with in Mosul; an American history professor he was in touch with via Skype since 2012, who knew his real identity. He provided all of this, and we spoke with all of them, including one person who, as it turns out, also figured out who he was and discovered that they have mutual friends. Omar provided us with links to his own scholarly work on Mosul. He sent over screen grabs of exchanges with a reporter from another news organization who he had worked with during the airstrikes to try and extract trapped civilians. He explained that, by that point, people were just messaging Mosul Eye in hopes he could help them. He acknowledged one other person had administrator access to the account: a Mosul woman now living in the U.S. who helped him with some of the interviews in English.

Omar explained to us how he cross-checked his information, and we put some of that into the story, but Mosul Eye isn’t an infallible source any more than anyone else, especially in a chaotic war environment. His death toll numbers, especially during the final months of the battle, are unconfirmed but in line with other estimates.That said, some of his unpublished notes read by Lori and Maggie, with origin dates from 2014 and 2015 and early 2016 especially, showed knowledge of IS that would only be published later. The leaflets he was collecting and publishing, the photos he was using to offer biographies and diagrams of their leadership showed a historian’s desire for documentation.

Several activists whom AP interviewed said that Mosul Eye was the only window to the outside world and that they have been closely following but fearing to even “like” or “share,” knowing that IS keeps an eye on social media.

I have cited this passage in its entirety because in the deformed world of “fake news” (which plainly did not start with Donald Trump, even if he embodies its digital metastasis: see also here and here), where today the alt.left is as pernicious as the alt.right in disparaging stories they don’t like, questions of veracity – and, to be sure, of positionality – have assumed a new and profoundly political importance  The vomit-inducing denial of systematic Russian and Syrian air strikes on hospitals and medical facilities across Syria is a case in point; the disingenuous disparagement of the work of MSF, the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) and a host of other non-government agencies is another.

It’s a complicated terrain, of course, and my second example illustrates something of what is at stake.  It comes from East Ghouta.  I’m preparing a major post on recent events there – it should be ready next week – and, as in my previous work, here too I’ve drawn on voices from inside the siege.  Many newsrooms and digital platforms have reported the extraordinary videos posted on Twitter and YouTube by 15 year-old Muhammad Najem: see here and here.

CNN reported:

Najem’s videos have a common theme: an appeal to the world to bear witness to what is happening in Syria.
“People should know about everything happening in Syria,” he told CNN. “I want to follow my studies. I want to become a reporter when I grow up. “Our blood begs every day. You watch it daily without any reaction from you,” Najem says in one video, wearing a Syrian flag draped around his neck like a scarf. “Our hunger, cold, and displacement have become a common sight. Save our people in Ghouta.”
In one of his most powerful videos, Najem stands on a rooftop as explosions echo in the distance. “We are killed by your silence,” he says.”

 

(If you read some of the comments below his videos on YouTube, you will discover the killing is not only accomplished by silence.)

The CNN report added the by now standard disclaimer – ‘CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos – but the tone and texture of their coverage makes it plain that CNN doubts neither their authenticity nor their accuracy.  There is no single, plenary Truth – Donna Haraway debunked the ‘God Trick’ ages ago – but passion and partiality do not automatically disqualify someone’s voice: still less so, when their position is so precarious.

But listen to this exchange from the state-owned France 24.

 

In one of the videos, Najem says he wants to become a reporter “when I am grown up”. But for Franco-American [photo]journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, who covered the Syrian conflict (in 2013, he was held captive by an Islamist group for 81 days), “a journalist shouldn’t be seen… Otherwise he becomes the subject,” he told FRANCE 24. To Alpeyrie, the teenager is more activist than journalist. “He is hostile to Bashar al-Assad but the role of the press isn’t to take a stance….”

Although several news outlets have relayed the teenager’s testimony, Alpeyrie thinks it’s dangerous to do so: “We can’t confirm the provenance of these videos. He says that he’s filming in Eastern Ghouta, but we don’t know anything.”

 

Describing Najem’s videos as a series of ‘selfies’, France 24’s reporter asked philosopher-psychoanalyst Elsa Godart for her take on them:

If a teenager is behind the account, his reliance on the selfie can have different motivations, said Godart. In the worst situation, aside from manipulation: “We can envision an extreme narcissism, where one plays on a tragic event under the sympathetic guise of defending humanity.”

And if we assume that the gesture is real and sincere on the part of an adolescent on the ground? “Then this could be just as it appears: a selfie as an act of resistance. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei documented his 2009 arrest with a selfie that he later exhibited as a work of art,” said Godart.

To her, the selfie taken at war is similar: “It denounces something extraordinary. It is a testimony of something that one feels a duty to report. ‘I am attacked, and here is the photographic evidence.’”

I hope it’s obvious what I think too.

Cities under siege (II)

In this second post on Cities under siege I provide a back-story to the re-intensification of military and paramilitary violence against civilians in Syria I described here.  But it’s also a back-story to the stunning image above, ‘Deluge’ by Imranovi: people were evacuated to what eventually became nominally ‘de-escalation zones’ from besieged cities like Aleppo, but many more continued to flee Syria altogether – like Imranovi himself (more on Imranovi here and here).  It’s worth pausing over his artwork: every time we see video of those perilous boats crammed with desperate refugees we ought to reflect on the oceans of bloody rubble strewn across their land and the millions of other displaced people in their wake.

There is a close connection between internal displacement and cities under siege.  Here is the UN’s estimate of the displaced population in December 2016:

They are concentrated in towns and cities.  Many people have managed to escape areas under siege, risking their lives to do so, but many others have sought refuge in towns and cities that have themselves come under siege.  Here, for example, is Siege Watch‘s description of Eastern Ghouta in mid-2016:

The capture of besieged towns on the south and eastern sides of Eastern Ghouta had a negative impact on conditions throughout the entire besieged region. IDPs from the frontline areas fled into host communities that have also been subjected to the same long-term siege and lack the infrastructure and resources to support the newly displaced families. There is now a higher concentration of people living in temporary shelters or sleeping on the streets.

The UN defines a besieged area as ‘an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit the area.’  

But the definition  and its application turn out to be as problematic as perhaps you would expect.  Here is Annie Sparrow:

Estimates of the number of Syrians currently living under siege vary widely, according to who is doing the reporting. For example, last December [2015], the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Damascus communicated back to the UN secretary-general’s office that 393,700 civilians were besieged. For the same period, Siege Watch estimated that the real figure was more than one million…

From its base at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, OCHA decided that an area is merely “hard to reach” rather than besieged if it has received an aid convoy in the last three months, regardless of whether the supplies are sufficient for one month, let alone three.

One doesn’t need to travel far from Damascus to see how little a distinction there often is between a “hard to reach” and a “besieged” area.

I’ll return to that last, vital point, but here are two of those OCHA maps.  The first shows the situation in January 2016 and the second in April 2017:

Even those attenuated maps are alarming enough, but the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) also believes that the OCHA reports systematically under-report the magnitude of the crisis, and in Slow Death: Life and Dearth in Syrian communities under siege (March 2015) they provided a more sensitive three-tier classification.

These are, of course, heterogeneous communities – none of the reports I have cited (nor those I will draw on later) conceals the presence of armed groups of various stripes within them, often jostling for control – but siege warfare renders them as homogeneous.  The presence of civilians, for the most part desperately struggling to survive in the midst of chaos and conflict, is erased; this begins as a discursive strategy but rapidly becomes a visceral reality.  In short, siege warfare becomes a version of enemy-centric counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the Syrian government less invested in ‘performing the state’ through the provision of services than in denying services to the entire population in these areas.  By these means the Assad regime has pursued a strategy that mimics the Islamic State’s determination to ‘extinguish the grey zone‘:

Like Annie, I have been impressed by the work of Siege Watch and so I’ll start with their regular reports that have provided a series of powerful insights into the effects of sieges on everyday life.  In their first report they identified characteristics shared by all communities besieged by the Syrian government.  When that report was compiled almost 50 communities were besieged; only two of them were under siege by forces other than the Syrian government and a third was besieged on one side by the Syrian government and on the other by Islamic State.

There are three characteristics that I want to emphasise:

Deprivation:

  • ‘Civilians in the besieged areas struggle to survive. Electricity and running water are usually cut off, and there is limited (if any) access to food, fuel, and medical care. In many of these areas, civilians have died from malnutrition due to the severity with which the blockades are enforced. In all of these areas, civilians with diseases, chronic conditions, and injuries have died as a result of the lack of access to medical care. Other recorded causes of siege-related deaths include hypothermia due to the lack of heating oil in the winter, and poisoning after eating something toxic while scavenging for food. Poor sanitation conditions in the besieged areas have resulted in frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases.’

Extortion and economic development:

  • ‘The pre-war economies in all of the government-besieged areas have collapsed. They have been replaced with siege economies that depend on smuggling, bribery, and local production; and because they are nearly-closed economic systems they experience extreme price volatility. Unemployment levels in besieged areas are high, reaching 100% in some of the worst Tier 1 communities such as Jobar. The Syrian government profits off of the sieges by allowing a few pro-government traders to sell goods – sometimes expired – through the checkpoints at tremendously inflated prices and taking a cut of the profits. Sometimes civilians can pay extremely high bribes to government forces or smugglers to escape the besieged areas, although both methods entail tremendous personal risk. These extortive practices have drained the areas under long-term siege of their financial resources.’

An improvised fuel stand in besieged Eastern Ghouta, February 2017

Violence:

  • ‘Most of these besieged areas are targeted with violent attacks by the Syrian armed forces and its allies. In addition to sniping and the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, there have also been confirmed uses of internationally banned weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons….  Most of the communities also contain AOGs [Armed Opposition Groups] which defend the the areas against incursion by pro-government forces, launch offensive attacks against the Syrian military and its allies, and coordinate with the Local Councils to varying degrees. Many Siege Watch survey respondents noted that AOGs were present only around the periphery of their communities, and a few respondents from towns in the interior of the Eastern Ghouta said that AOGs were not active in their areas at all.… [In addition] both Syrian government forces and extremists compete to recruit recruit men and boys from besieged communities using threats, blackmail, fear, propaganda, and indoctrination.’  

Siege Watch notes how, in consequence, ordinary people have ‘adjusted’ to these new, bleak realities: ‘Creative survival tactics such as rooftop gardening [below: eastern Aleppo], burning plastic to extract oil derivatives, and the local production of some basic medical supplies have become more common over time, and people have begun to acclimatise to a more primitive lifestyle’ [see also here].

That sentence gestures towards a sharper point made by José Ciro Martinez and Brent Eng (‘Struggling to perform the state: the politics of bread in the Syrian civil war’, International political sociology 11 (2) (2017) 130-47):

‘Most accounts [of the war in Syria] choose to privilege bellicose affairs over the humdrum concerns of daily life, which are deemed humanitarian issues separate from the violent battles and geopolitical struggles said to comprise the “actual” politics of war. This portrayal of conflict is illusory: it disregards the majority of interactions that shape both life and politics in contemporary war zones, where “most people most of the time are interacting in non-violent ways” (Tilly 2003, 12). One result of prevalent depictions of civil war is that civilians are frequently rendered powerless. If they do appear, it is as pawns in a conflict fought by armed groups autonomous from the societies they struggle to control.’

That’s an important qualification, but it plainly doesn’t erase the struggles of civilians either – which makes ‘acclimatisation’ a remarkably weak term to describe the multiple, extraordinary ways in which civilians have been forced to adjust to a new, terrifyingly abnormal ‘normal’ in order to survive.  Here, for example, is a doctor in Homs describing ‘Siege Medicine’ [more here]:The Center for Civilians in Conflict has also provided a report on civilian survival strategies that lists a series of other extraordinary, collective measures (and the title, Waiting for No One, says it all).  These strategies include the provision of makeshift early warning systems against incoming air attacks (spotter networks, radios and sirens); the provision and protection of medical infrastructure (in part through improvised field hospitals and the construction of underground hospitals); and the development of local aid and rescue teams (including the Syrian Civil Defence or White Helmets); protection from unexploded ordnance (‘the armed groups typically harvest them for their own makeshift weapons’ but the White Helmets and other groups have sought to render them harmless).

But Siege Watch – and José and Brent – have in mind something more: something in addition to strategies that are necessarily but none the less intimately related to direct, explosive and often catastrophic violence.  They also want to emphasise the ways in which otherwise ordinary, everyday activities have been compromised and ultimately transformed by siege warfare.

Here I focus on food (in)security.  Here is Annia Ciezadlo reporting from Yarmouk in Damascus:

In a dark kitchen, by the flickering light of a single safety candle, two men bundled in hats and jackets against the cold put on an impromptu video satire: live from Yarmouk, at the southernmost edge of Damascus, a cooking show for people under siege.

“This is the new dish in the camp of Yarmouk. It hasn’t even hit the market yet,” said the man on the right, 40-year-old Firas Naji, the blunt and humorous host.

He picked up a foot-long paddle of sobara, Arabic for prickly pear cactus. Holding it carefully by one end to avoid thorns, he displayed first one side and then the other for the camera.

“In the U.S., they get Kentucky [Fried Chicken], hot dogs. In Italy, spaghetti and pizza,” he said, his raspy voice caressing the names of unattainable foods. “Here in Yarmouk, we get sobara.

“It’s not enough we have checkpoints in the streets and shelling,” he added, laying the cactus back on the counter with a sad laugh. “Even our cooking has thorns.”

 

Yarmouk was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for Palestinians but gradually it had absorbed more and more Syrians displaced by drought, famine and eventually fighting.  As the war intensified, so the siege tightened:

The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo…. On July 21, 2013, the regime closed the main checkpoint into Yarmouk for good. The siege was total: Nobody could leave, and nothing could enter except what the soldiers permitted.

Over the next six months, the price of everything went up. A single radish reached $1.50 at one point; a kilo of rice was $100.

And so the inhabitants turned to gardening:

Between buildings, in abandoned lots and on rooftops, the siege gardeners of Yarmouk have been cultivating everything from eggplants to mulukhiyeh, a jute plant whose glossy leaves make a rich green stew. Come harvest time, they bag the produce into 1-kilo portions, hang the bags on the handlebars of beat-up bicycles and pedal around the camp distributing the food to their neighbors. They focus on those most in danger of starving: children, poor people and the elderly.

But the situation was much bleaker than the picture conjured up by that paragraph; the siege waxed and waned, and UNRWA was occasionally granted permission to deliver emergency relief, but the image below – of residents queuing for food supplies – shows how desperate the situation became.

Here is a woman in September 2014 describing the horrors of the siege to Jonathan Steele:

There was no anger or hysteria in her voice, just a calm recollection of facts. “You couldn’t buy bread. At the worst point a kilo of rice cost 12,000 Syrian pounds (£41), now it is 800 pounds (£2.75) compared to 100 Syrian pounds (34p) in central Damascus. It was 900 pounds (£3.10) for a kilo of tomatoes, compared to 100 here,” Reem recalled. “We had some stocks but when they gave out we used to eat wild plants. We picked and cooked them. In every family there was hepatitis because of a lack of sugar. The water was dirty. People had fevers. Your joints and bones felt stiff. My middle daughter had brucellosis and there was no medication,” she said. In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.

Control of Yarmouk see-sawed between the Syrian Arab Army, Al-Nusrah and Islamic State, with thousands of civilians trapped behind the siege lines so that time and time again the community was thrown back on its own, desperately strained resources to survive.

Here is how Mamoon Yalabasi described a second satirical video from Yarmouk, made shortly after IS over-ran the camp, in April 2015:

“We are in the Yarmouk camp, the camp of plentifulness…  Take a look at the floor,” said the man as the camera shows water in the street. “This is not water. This is an excess of cooking [flooding the streets].”

The youth then moved on to mockingly give his viewers advice on how to lose weight.

“Would you like to lose weight? Green tea won’t work, nor will ginger … just come to Yarmouk camp for five months, in each month you’ll lose 9kg,” he said, adding the Arabic proverb: “Ask someone with experience instead of asking a doctor.”  …  “We ask the troublesome channels that claim Yarmouk camp is under siege to stop reporting that. It is ‘absolutely’ [said in English] not true,” one said.  “It’s true that my grandmother died of hunger but not because the camp was under siege but because my grandfather was so stingy – he never allowed her near the fridge,” he added.

Perhaps you think all this extreme, even exceptional, comforted by those images of rooftop gardens, and believe that those who bravely tended them could somehow perform their own green revolution.  So here are Zeinat Akhras and her brother describing how they survived during the siege of Homs:

The examples can be multiplied many times over, but in a way this last testimony is exceptional – amongst those on which I’m drawing, at any rate – because it only became available once the siege had been lifted.  Those videos from Yarmouk point towards something different: the possibility of breaching siege lines through digital media.

So let me turn to Madaya, a town in the Qalamoun Mountains 45 km north-west of Damascus and once famous for its fruits and vegetables.  It came under siege from the Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah militias in July 2015: the town was encircled by 65 sniper-controlled checkpoints (below) and its surrounding countryside sown with thousands of landmines.

In January 2016 the UN still classified Madaya as a ‘hard-to-reach area’, so listen to one local resident describing conditions to Amnesty International that same month:

Every day I wake up and start searching for food. I lost a lot of weight, I look like a skeleton covered only in skin. Every day, I feel that I will faint and not wake up again… I have a wife and three children. We eat once every two days to make sure that whatever we buy doesn’t run out. On other days, we have water and salt and sometimes the leaves from trees. Sometimes organizations distribute food they have bought from suppliers, but they cannot cover the needs of all the people.

In Madaya, you see walking skeletons. The children are always crying. We have many people with chronic diseases. Some told me that they go every day to the checkpoints, asking to leave, but the government won’t allow them out. We have only one field hospital, just one room, but they don’t have any medical equipment or supplies.

I’ve described that field hospital before, but Mohammad‘s testimony reminds us that war produces not only catastrophic injuries; it also produces and intensifies chronic illnesses that a protracted siege eventually renders untreatable.  (The Syrian American Medical Society issued a report, Madaya: Starvation under Siege, which you can read here).

Two days later there were reports of a different digital satire: one that denied the existence of a siege in Madaya and mocked its victims.

A hashtag has swept Facebook and Twitter,  #متضامن_مع_حصار_مضايا , which translates to “in solidarity with the siege on Madaya”, where individuals have posted pictures of food or skeletons, mocking those in Madaya. While many believe that the siege is a myth, some appear to be genuinely mocking the suffering of innocent people…’

The posts were subsequently removed, but here is one I captured:

Fortunately a different digital economy was already at work.  Rym Momtaz, a producer with ABC News, had started a text exchange with a young mother of five children in Madaya:

We communicate through secure messaging apps over the phones, over the internet really. So the way we went about finding her was to go through a wide network of sources that we’ve cultivated over the years of covering the war in Syria. We had to work for a few weeks, I have to say, to identify the right person and then to get in touch with her and to gain her trust in order for her to feel comfortable enough to engage in this conversation with us because she felt and her family felt that it might put her in danger.

‘‘She would text me from the moment she woke up, which was very, very, early, like 5 a.m.,’ Rym explained, ‘and then she would text me truly throughout the day.’  And that same month – January 2016 – ABC started publishing those precious despatches from Madaya.  ‘They can’t get out of Madaya – and we can’t get in,’ ABC News’ Foreign Editor emphasised, but ‘they can tell their story to the world.’

Working with Marvel Comics, ABC transformed her story into a free digital comic: Madaya Mom.

For Dalibor Talajic, the Marvel Comics illustrator who worked on the project,

The most striking parts is for me the most intimate ones as she – for instance, she decides to even though they are – they’re all starving, she decides to stop eating herself because this little amounts of supplies and food that she has, she distributes it to her children and of course husband. And she herself just stopped eating. And it’s not like a dramatic decision. It’s, like, a logical thing to do. These are the moments that stick with me most.

And it is through the assault on the intimacies of everyday life – on something as vital as feeding one’s family – that siege warfare is at its most vicious.

In case you are wondering how the family managed to charge their phones, not at all incidentally, here is the answer:

After protracted negotiations aid convoys were allowed in from time to time, but the situation remained grave.  An aid worker who accompanied a UNICEF convoy into Madaya in September 2016 described the stories told by patients who flocked to a makeshift medical clinic:

Parents whose children had stopped eating because their bodies could no longer tolerate only rice and beans. Children who could no longer walk straight because of the lack of Vitamin D and micronutrients that had riddled their bones with rickets, or who had stopped growing entirely, stunted from lack of essential vitamins. One mother showed us her baby’s bottle filled with rice water – the teat so worn it had to be sewn back to together. “Look at what I am feeding my child” she said.

Almost everyone we spoke to asked for protein – meat, eggs, milk, vegetables – something more to sustain themselves than the dry goods that were available. One mother explained that every time her child now smells boiled burgal, she starts to cry.

The doctor reported an increase in miscarriages, 10 cases in the last 6 months, because of the nutritional status of mothers. Over the last year alone, he has had to perform over 60 caesarian sections. This number was unheard of before the crisis, she told us  But women no longer have the strength for childbirth, and many pregnancies go over term, again because of the poor health of pregnant women.

Six months later life in Madaya remained precarious in the extreme:

Throughout the siege there were accusations of profiteering, but these ran in both directions (it is partly through them that Hezbollah elected to acknowledge the suffering of the city – only to point the fingers of blame at the rebels inside).  According to Avi Asher-Schapiro for VICE News, who spoke to the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Abdulrahman, via Skype in January 2016:

Hezbollah media outlets are accusing Abudlrahman and his men of confiscating food in Madaya, holding the population hostage, and profiteering during the crisis. In early January, a video surfaced of a woman from Madaya condemning rebels for hoarding food among themselves. The rebels are “only traders in people’s blood,” she told a scrum of reporters who gathered at the barricades outside Madaya. “They only care about securing food supplies for their families.”

That video [above] was aired around the world by Reuters and Al Jazeera. The accusations enraged Abdulrahman. “When Madaya goes hungry, we go hungry,” he says. “These are vicious lies.” VICE News spoke with another woman who claimed to be at the barricades that day. Although it was impossible to verify her claims, she said that Hezbollah fighters — who can be seen in the video frame — told women to condemn the rebels and praise Assad in exchange for food and safe passage from the town.

In a press release from early January, Hezbollah also accused Abdulrahman of profiteering. “Armed groups in Madaya control food supplies within the town and sell to whoever can afford it,” the statement read, “Thus, starvation is widespread among poor civilians.” VICE News spoke to a Hezbollah commander stationed outside Madaya who repeated these claims, and said that Hezbollah has been sending food inside the town. The rebels, he said, are keeping it for themselves. He also strongly denied that Hezbollah was trading food for propaganda.

VICE News also spoke with aid workers at the Doctors Without Borders-affiliated field hospital in Madaya, who reported no interference from Abdulrahman’s men in the dispensation of aid.

For further, still more shocking twists on the story, see here and a response here.  It’s difficult to adjudicate these competing claims in the face of skilfully organised propaganda campaigns (in which the alt.left is often as grotesque as the alt.right), but wherever the truth lies, it is clear that food has been consistently transformed into a weapon of war (‘surrender or starve‘) – a crime expressly forbidden by international humanitarian law (see also here) – and that 40,000 civilians inside Madaya were trapped in the midst of the battle.

In my previous post on this subject, I described all this as the back-story to the carnage now taking place in Idlib, in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere, but it is of course only one back-story: there are many more.  Still, on 14 April 2017 under the ‘Four Towns Agreement’ a fleet of sixty buses transported several thousand people, rebels and civilians, from Madaya – to Idlib.

Only 2,200 out of 40,000 people signed up to go, and ‘Madaya Mom’ expressed the catch-22 facing the besieged population perfectly:

If we leave, we’re labeled terrorists and we go to Idlib where the chemical attack happened last week; and if we stay we don’t know how the government will treat us.

At first, those who left were relieved and even heartened.  Deutsche Welle spoke with one young evacuee from Madaya soon after he arrived in Idlib:

I was surprised. I saw markets [below, June 2017], people walking in the streets; there is electricity, internet, ice cream and food – things we did not have in Madaya. Madaya and Zabadani are destroyed. In Idlib, the destruction is not too bad. There are a lot of cars and I was really surprised to see cars. I felt like the little children that came from Madaya to Idlib: they were surprised when they saw a banana, a cherry, biscuits or chocolate. They have never seen that before. It sounds stupid, but I felt a little bit the same when I saw cars again.

I can eat everything. The first thing I ate was fried chicken and it was great. And I have had a lot of chocolate, too.

But as the interview progressed, his elation was punctured by a growing realisation of the  bleak future ahead:

But in general, Idlib is a poor city… I started to search for jobs, but there are almost no jobs here. Idlib is like a big prison. It’s like Gaza. It’s like Madaya, but a big Madaya. So we are imprisoned here.

We know what horrors lay in wait, and we know something of what is happening in Idlib now.  But what of Madaya?  Here are extracts from a report (‘community profile’) for September 2017 (you can find more from SIRF/REACH here):

  • Movement was unrestricted within Madaya. For movement in and out of the area, two access points have been used since the implementation of the Four Towns Agreement. In September, 26-50% of the population were reportedly able to use formal access points providing they showed identi cation. However, men reportedly did not feel safe using the access points, fearing conscription and detention when crossing, while both men and women reported verbal harassment.
  • Since May 2017, commercial vehicle access has been permitted to the area. However, access restrictions on vehicle entry continued to be reported in September and included documentation requirements, confiscation of loads, required fees and limited entry depending on the day or time.
  • Humanitarian vehicle entry has reportedly not been permitted for the past six months.
  • The cost of a standard food basket in Madaya has remained stable since May 2017, with the average cost around 12% more expensive than nearby communities not classi ed as besieged or hard-to-reach.
  • Water continued to be insufficient and some residents reportedly reallocated money intended for other things to purchase water. Meanwhile, access to generators remained stable at 4-8 hours a day in all areas of the community.

I’m conscious of how much I haven’t been able to address in this post.  In particular, I’ve chosen to focus on the ‘silent violence’ of hunger and malnutrition rather than the explosive violence of mortars, missiles and bombs.  The two coincide in all sorts of ways – think, for example, of the air strikes on bakeries, what Anna Ciezadlo called ‘the war on bread‘, and on hospitals and clinics – but the contrast is really my point.  As one resident of Aleppo told Amnesty,

You need months before you die of starvation. The air strike attacks were a different story. You could die from a piece of shrapnel in a fraction of a second. Nobody was protected from the air strikes and shelling. Civilians, rebels, buildings, cars, bridges, trees, gardens etc. were all a target.

And so one final digital satire.  In April 2016 the Syrian government held elections and claimed that even opposition-held areas were enthusiastically participating.  Responding to what they called ‘the theatrics of the Assad regime’, teenagers in Madaya posted a video of their own mock hustings:The rival candidates were “Deadly Starvation”, “Deadly Illness”, and “Airstrikes”.

Cities under siege (I)

This is the first of a two-part post, in which I return (at last!) to a promissory note I issued last year about siege warfare in Syria.  My return is prompted by a series of reports about the catastrophic situation in Eastern Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus) and Idlib.

First, Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies since April 2013.  Most of Eastern Ghoutta was designated as one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ (see map above) under an agreement reached in May 2017, in which aerial violence and all other hostilities would be suspended for six months and humanitarian aid would be allowed across the siege lines.

But the agreement turned out to be primarily a way of killing time.  Aron Lund writes:

In September, just as the Eastern Ghouta’s de-escalation zone was finalized, the situation abruptly worsened. After ordering a halt to the already heavily restricted commercial traffic through the Wafideen crossing [see map below: more here and here], the Syrian government refused to permit any more UN aid missions.

It was a transparent attempt to stoke the humanitarian emergency in Eastern Ghouta, but this time the effect was more severe than during previous rounds of food cuts. With the rebel trading tunnels out of commission for half a year, smuggling could no longer compensate for the shortfall or bring in medicine or basic necessities like fuel, which has not entered the Ghouta since February.

Food stockpiles dwindled quickly and triggered a scramble for whatever remained available on the market, the panicky mood inflamed by suspicions that rebel-connected businessmen were hoarding goods for speculation purposes. From August to October, the already high prices inside Eastern Ghouta increased fivefold, far beyond any other region of Syria.

Air strikes (above) and artillery bombardment resumed in November and have continued, and urgent medical evacuations were denied.  Here is UN Senior Adviser Jan Egelan in December 2017:

Six months ago a very detailed evacuation plan was delivered to the government for needy cases of evacuation, on medical grounds from eastern Ghouta.  Since then, names have been added regularly and it is now, we now have a revised list of 494 names. There are among them 282 cases that need] specialized surgery, specialized treatment, specialized investigations that [they] cannot get inside. There are 73 severe cancer cases, 25 kidney failure cases and 97 heart disease cases [that are] very concerning, five acutely malnourished children that need to be evacuated, six acute mental health cases etc.

The list had to be revised because 12 patients had died while waiting for ‘a half an hour drive to hospitals in Damascus and elsewhere that stand ready to help and save lives.’  Egelan explained that ‘231 of the cases are female, 137 are children, 61 are over 65 years old.  So these are civilians, in the midst of this horrific war.’

He added:  ‘Civilians, children, no one can be a bargaining chip in some kind of tug of war, where many things are negotiated at the same time. These have a right to be evacuated and we have an obligation to evacuate them.’

Siege warfare involves not only closure of movement across the lines for those inside; it also involves opening the zone to violence from the outside.  The assault on Eastern Ghouta has provided ample evidence, but the second case is even more instructive.

And so, second, what was supposed to be the ‘de-escalation’ zone of Idlib has been converted into a ‘kill box’ (for a discussion of the term in relation to remote warfare, see here and here).  Here is Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen writing in the Guardian:

Russian and Syrian jets bombed towns and villages across north-west Syria on Monday, devastating civilian areas and forcing fresh waves of refugees to flee to open ground in the biggest aerial blitz on opposition-held areas since the fall of Aleppo more than a year ago.  Monitoring groups said as many as 150 airstrikes were recorded in Idlib province by Monday, with dozens more pounding up to 18 towns across the region by nightfall.  Residential areas bore the brunt of the strikes, which severely damaged at least two major hospitals, and levelled dozens of buildings in which panicked locals had taken shelter.

Refugees and locals say they fear that Idlib has been transformed into a kill box, with the international community paying scant regard to their fate, as regional powers, Russia, Turkey and Iran all vie for influence in a vital corner of the country.

These strikes were in retaliation for the downing of a Russian aircraft – in this spectacularly asymmetric war, only air-to-ground attacks are acceptable – but aerial violence against civilian infrastructure in Idlib precedes that incident.  Owdai (al Hisan) hospital in Saraqab City was hit by air strikes on 21 and 29 January, for example, and has now closed indefinitely  MSF reports that the loss of the hospital is all the more devastating because ‘medical needs in the area are expected to increase due to the massive displacement of Syrians fleeing fresh violence in Idlib’s eastern countryside and northeast Hama.’

Since then, the strikes intensified:

“The Russians are on a frenzy. They’re going mad. The shelling is ongoing throughout the day and night. The warplanes are hitting residential areas,” Hadi Abdullah, a local journalist, told Al Jazeera by phone from the town of Kafr Nabl in the northwestern Syrian province bordering Turkey…

The main hospital in Maaret al-Numan [above: this was the largest hospital in Idlib], east of Kafr Nabl, has stopped working after it was hit by air strikes, according to the civil defence – also known as the White Helmets.  “About 10 air raids hit the hospital. It was a disaster,” said Hadi, who had rushed to the scene.”The most difficult and heartbreaking scene was when the volunteers were quickly pulling the babies out of the hospital. I can’t get the image out of my head,” he recalled with a trembling voice.

‘De-escalation’ has become a prelude to its inverse.  “There is a misperception that the de-escalation areas have resulted in peace and stability,’ UN assistant secretary-general Panos Moumtsiz said today. “If anything, these have been serious escalation areas.”

With all these horrors in mind, in my second post I’ll turn to the back-story.  You can find other dimensions to the critique of siege warfare in Susan Power, ‘Siege warfare in Syria: prosecuting the starvation of civilians’, Amsterdam Law Forum 8: 2 (2016) 1-22 here or Will Todman, ‘Isolating dissent, punishing the masses: siege warfare as counterinsurgency’, Syria Studies 9 (1) (2017) 1-32.

There’s also a series of important quarterly reports from Siege Watch; these started in February 2016, and the most recent covers August-September 2017 and includes a detailed analysis of both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

I plan to approach the issue through one of my favourite books, Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege.  Steve’s object was what he called ‘the new military urbanism’ but the situation in Syria – and elsewhere: think Mosul in Iraq (see, for example, here: scroll down) or Israel’s endless sieges of Gaza (see, for example, here) – demonstrate the extraordinary capacity of later modern war to combine cutting-edge technology (never has that adjective been more dismally appropriate) with medieval cruelty.  There is another difference; for all Steve’s analytical passion – and empathy – the voices of those inside the cities under siege are largely silent, yet in Syria (again: and elsewhere) digital media allow us to listen to them and to witness their suffering.  More soon.