Syrian Troops Ring City Hit By Chemical Attack
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Let's turn now to Syria. The civil war in that country has been going on for two and a half years now and has taken more than 100,000 lives. Lately, the focus has been on the chemical weapons attacks that occurred in August, but the victims of those attacks are now facing another threat.
Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Dagher found that one of the towns that suffered from the chemical bombardment is now blockaded by government forces and residents are increasingly desperate for food and other vital supplies. Sam Dagher joins us on the line from Damascus and, Sam, welcome back to the program.
SAM DAGHER: Thank you, David.
GREENE: So you traveled to this town, this suburb of Damascus called Moadhamiya. Tell me what you saw.
DAGHER: The government has tanks, has armored vehicles, has army units there basically besieging the section of the town which is controlled by rebels. And...
GREENE: That they're trapping people in this rebel-controlled area.
DAGHER: Precisely. They've set up earth berms. They've stacked up empty barrels and broken kitchen appliances in order to separate that section of the town that's controlled by the rebels. And there are snipers on rooftops. So it's a real war zone there and the people who are trapped - and these include rebel fighters and civilians - they're not allowed to leave.
Nobody is allowed to go in. They are subjected almost on a daily basis with artillery shelling, rockets that are being fired from nearby mountaintops, sometimes aerial bombardment. And sometimes you get clashes between the forces that are on the government side of the town and the rebels.
GREENE: Are people getting food and supplies from the outside at all?
DAGHER: Well, up to about two months ago, those who sympathized with the plight of the people who are trapped in Moadhamiya would drive past the town and toss grocery bags out of their car windows in their direction. And often people would come out and take the bag, but it would be at great risk because snipers might shoot them. The government realized what was going on so it completely shut down that section of the highway.
GREENE: So what are people eating who live in this rebel-controlled area?
DAGHER: Well, whatever they can forage locally. Moadhamiya is known for its ancient olive trees, there are olive groves everywhere. They also are eating grapevine leaves, they tell me. Some vegetables they're able to grow like pumpkins and maybe mint. And they said, you know, very, very rarely they're able to smuggle stuff in. But they say this is now impossible. You know, almost for two months they haven't been able to smuggle anything in.
GREENE: I mean, if you're living on mint and olives, I mean, that sounds like it's a situation that's growing more and more dire.
DAGHER: It is. And that's why the United Nations and the Syrian Red Crescent here which works with the United Nations have made repeated urgent appeals for access to this particular town. I spoke to an official with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and he said that he has made seven attempts since the start of this year to deliver much needed food trucks to Moadhamiya.
And he's been turned away every time by the military checkpoints at the entrance.
GREENE: Sam, who are you talking to who's describing these grim scenes to you?
DAGHER: Well, basically I'm talking to people who are still trapped on the inside, who are still able to communicate via Skype. The people who are with the regime whom I actually interviewed when I was there, confirmed that these people were starving, and they said these people deserved it and they should starve until they surrender.
GREENE: There's one quote in your story, Sam, that was really striking. A paramilitary member who's fighting for the regime said: We won't allow them to be nourished in order to kill us. And I wonder, is this limited to Moadhamiya, or are you getting the sense that this is a broader strategy the government might be using to starve out places where they believe there are rebel fighters?
DAGHER: When you confront government officials here about it, they tell you that the rebels have besieged other communities as well.
GREENE: The government is saying that the rebels have used these tactics elsewhere in the country.
DAGHER: Exactly. And they do have a point, it's true. But I would say it's much more severe in the rebel-held communities mainly here in Damascus. I mean, I can confirm that all the suburbs, all the enclaves that are controlled by the rebels, are totally besieged by government troops and paramilitary forces as well.
GREENE: Thanks for coming on the program. We appreciate your time.
DAGHER: Sure. My pleasure.
GREENE: That's Sam Dagher from the Wall Street Journal who was talking to us from Damascus.