How 'the wheel of life' has stopped in Syria's Daraa

Syria's Daraa
7 min read
As residents of Daraa al-Balad in south Syria are starved of food, medicine and education in a harsh blockade by the regime, activists are not deterred from the protest.

As the people of Daraa al-Balad area remain at loggerheads with the Syrian regime and Russian forces, the residents are being starved of food and medicine while also deprived of education and other basic amenities over their refusal to participate in Assad’s “farce” elections.

Since May, Daraa has been under siege by the Bashar al-Assad regime. 

Daraa al-Balad consists of several neighbourhoods, Palestinian refugee camps as well as camps for those displaced in the occupied Syrian Golan. There are also agricultural farms within the two to the three-kilometre area, but many have moved their operations, fearing bombardment by regime forces. 

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No access to medicine or care  

Blocked off from medical attention, the elderly and children faint from the heat, as access to treatment for serious illnesses is barred. 

“A woman passed away while she was giving birth because she was prevented from entering the hospital,” local businessman and family man Mohamed Zatima tells The New Arab. 

He says that the Russians even go as far as to block off veterinary supplies to the area. “A siege by the Russians and the regime on Daraa al-Balad is not limited to humans, but even to animals,” he comments. 

Coronavirus is also a cause for alarm, as cases are rising and victims of the deadly disease cannot enter the hospital in the city centre.

Local father-of-six Abu Abdullah, 55, who is now out of work due to poor health, describes life in besieged Daraa as tragic and difficult under a “suffocating blockade”.

Having undergone an open-heart surgery eight months ago, he needs access to hard-to-get medicine, which is now impossible. “There is medicine I will have to cut out due to the lack of it, no presence of doctors, and my inability to buy it on the black market,” he says.

He continues: “There is no water, no electricity, no way to go to hospitals and doctors in the regime’s area from medical laboratories, radiology or service centres.”

"A woman passed away while she was giving birth because she was prevented from entering the hospital"

Abu’s surgery cost him SYP 6 million ($4,770), and he had to seek the help of friends: “With the help of good people, I was able to pay for the operation.” He bears scars on his chest and legs from surgery, where arteries were transplanted to his heart, and he suffered injuries from regime attacks. 

Basic amenities are sparse 

Not only do the people of Daraa lose out on lifesaving medicine, but also the everyday basics. Starved of food and drink as energy runs low, work has dried up in the area. Cut off from the Daraa city centre, where the markets and modern shops are, the 11,000 families in Daraa al-Balad cannot access what they need.   

“[There is] no work, no income, and no minimum supply of food, oil, gas, and energy,” Abu tells The New Arab. “Life since the regime’s control has become much worse than before, previously and despite the war, medicine was still available at least. Now the wheel of life has stopped,” he says. 

The Syrian regime and Russian planes fly low over the neighbourhoods, frightening children, causing great anxiety, and making it impossible for them to continue their education. 

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“I have four children who were prevented from entering schools and practising their hobbies," says Mohamed Zatima. "Due to the Russian jets which fly over the neighbourhoods at a low level, the children suffer from anxiety which has affected their behaviour.” 

Abu Abdullah says his daughters are unable to complete their education, due to the fact they are blocked off from schools in regime territory, and his other children are unable to work. “My children are deprived of their human rights, they have neither work nor study,” he says. 

"My children are deprived of their human rights, they have neither work nor study"

Protests continue

Despite the besiegement, local activists continue to protest against the regime’s blockade, and the presidential elections, known as “the farce”. Untrusting the Russians, the local governing bodies have rejected the most recent deal put forward. 

Local activist Loranc Alakrad explains, “Russia asked us to hand over light weapons, 200 Kalashnikov rifles and 20 machine guns, but the response of the civil committee was that we do not have these weapons, and it cannot be delivered – this request was completely rejected.”

Local protests demand the release of detainees, and the implementation of certain clauses in the July 2018 agreement that have not yet materialised, including the removal of militias and the return of the army – which has taken up residents in civilian homes and shops – to its barracks, the return of students to their schools and universities, and employees to their jobs. 

Loranc describes the blockade as revenge, pure and simple. “Regarding what happened in Daraa al-Balad, it is revenge for its rejection of Bashar al-Assad's elections – a child killer and a user of chemical weapons against his people,” he explains. 

Loranc, who is part of the peaceful protest movement in Daraa al-Balad, has faced assassination attempts from regime operatives, including a bombing attempt. He survived an attempted kidnapping in Daraa City after he managed to escape with his friends. 

Formerly a rebel stronghold, the regime retook the city in July 2018 and subjected the residents to what Loranc calls an attempt to humiliate and crush the spirit.

“The demonstrations in fact did not stop in Daraa al-Balad, but transformed the settlement agreement in July 2018 from an agreement of humiliation and breaking the will of the people into steadfastness, glory and pride,” he says. “[We] turned this defeat into victory, and turned this defeat into pride and glory for every rebel who remained in Daraa al-Balad. In 2011 until today, the demonstrations did not subside.” 

He continues: “Yes, of course, the people of Daraa will continue to resist, and they have said no to handing over weapons or searching homes.”

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What next? 

As the siege continues on the city, the residents can only speculate what will happen next. Will the regime launch a brutal offensive? Or will it simply continue its siege until the locals are starved out? 

“The regime and the Russians are still besieging the neighbourhoods of Daraa al-Balad, and in light of the arrival of new reinforcements, this suggests the possibility of a storming and massacre against us,” Mohamed Zatima explains. 

He fears an offensive against the people of Daraa, however, others don’t. 

“We are almost dead and there is no deterrent to him after the world abandoned us and his possession to all kinds of power and with the support of regional and global powers,” Abu Abdullah says. “This is a method of starvation and siege… and punishing a people for just an opinion.” 

Mohamed Zatima says if Assad stood in front of him, he would call him a child killer and a war criminal. 

He dreams of a better Syria, and rather than migrate to Europe, he has hope that Syria can achieve democracy: “I do not want to emigrate, but I want my country to become like the countries of Europe in terms of respect for human beings and appreciation of humanity. Syria is our country and the country of our ancestors.” 

Abu Abdullah on the other hand would want to migrate, striving for a decent future for his children. He would tell Assad to leave them in peace: “Leave and let us heal our wounds, for we have been exhausted by the war.”

Amy Addison-Dunne is a freelance digital journalist with an interest in the Middle East and British politics. She has written for the Daily Mirror, Morning Star.

Marwa Koçak is a journalist and translator with an interest in politics and human rights in the Middle East. She speaks Arabic, English and Turkish. She has written for Middle East Eye, Al-Jazeera.