Welcome To Homs, A Syrian City Under Siege

Jan 29, 2014
Originally published on January 30, 2014 11:00 am

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The ongoing Syrian peace talks in Geneva have raised hopes for humanitarian relief in cities, towns, and villages across the country that are under siege by government or rebel forces. And no place is more in need than the central city of Homs, whose residents were among the first to rise up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad's forces control most of Homs now but rebels entrenched in the old part of the city are continuing to fight, despite the increasingly desperate circumstances for the two-to-3,000 civilians trapped in the district.

NPR's Alice Fordham joins us now from Beirut. And, Alice, first give us the update on the ongoing siege. What's been happening in the city?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Well, soldiers from the Syrian army have dug in there. They're surrounding a big chunk of central Homs, it's the oldest part of the city and there are reckoned to be two to 3,000 people in there - most of whom are civilians, among them are some rebel fighters.

There have been sporadic bursts of fighting. But in general, the soldiers just seem to be not letting anyone or anything out of the area. And the people in there say this has been the case for about 600 days now. The people inside the besieged neighborhood say that gradually they've been reduced to starvation, and that sick and injured people are now dying for lack of medicine and care.

CORNISH: But help us understand how people have been able to hold out for so long. I mean, if they've been trapped there for two years, what has been the state of aid?

FORDHAM: This is actually quite a big neighborhood. It's more like actually about a dozen neighborhoods, sort of which are close together and tens of thousands of people used to live there. Now there's only two or 3,000 people there and they've been scavenging food from abandoned houses over the last two years.

Also, there used to be tunnels into this besieged area which were used for smuggling food and ammunition for the fighters. But people there say that the army blew up the last of them about six months ago. And now there's no way in or out.

CORNISH: Alice, give us a sense of the attitude, the perception of people in the besieged area toward the political opposition, those who are tasked with negotiating on their behalf in Geneva?

FORDHAM: Well, there's a lot of skepticism, to put it mildly. These people were a huge part of the beginning in the uprising in Syria. And now they're hungry and they're sick and they've run out of cigarettes. They don't feel like they've got a lot out of the political opposition. One guy that we spoke to said he felt like their suffering has become an international commodity. And another one said that when the opposition delegation went to Geneva, they didn't know anything about what was happening in Homs.

And they had to scramble and ask these guys a lot of questions, while the meetings in Switzerland were ongoing. But they are talking to them. They are coordinating via them with the U.N. and with the Red Cross. So the channels of communication are open, although the outcome is very far from clear.

CORNISH: Now, we have heard about other cities under siege in Syria. How unique is the situation in Homs?

FORDHAM: There are certainly a lot of similar instances, although I think that probably the situation in Homs is the most acute at the moment. The U.N. says that it has its convoy ready to go into Homs within hours notice, and this has been the case for really quite some time. It's made a number of attempts to go in and it has never been able to.

Over the last couple of years, they have been able to make similar trips to 18 other areas that they describe as under siege. There is also an area of Damascus, known as Yarmouk - which is largely populated by Palestinians - where we've heard very similar stories of extreme hunger, starvation, inability of convoys to reach this area for months now. So starvation, lack of medical care, blocking of convoys has been a constant complaint by aid agencies and by Syrians against the regime there.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut. Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.