EDITOR’S NOTE: This letter is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where international reporters cannot travel. Based at Stony Brook University’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, it is funded by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. Istanbul-based journalist Roy Gutman edited.
Madaya, Syria—When Donald Trump issued his first travel order in January, halting the arrival of refugees from everywhere and permanently banning Syrian refugees, I contacted friends from Syria in the United States who I thought might be candidates for deportation.
“Our hearts are with you!” I wrote. “We will pray for you. Don’t panic. Resist until the end and never surrender.” I offered to lobby the news media if one of my friends sent photos and videos to my dropbox. He replied with a sour-faced smiley.
It was my attempt at humor. I live in Madaya, nestled below snowcapped mountains northwest of Damascus. Once a town of 10,000 residents, it swelled to 40,000 during the war. We have been under siege for the past 20 months, blocked from coming or going by the Assad regime and by its ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. We’re convinced that Iran is directing this.
Madaya came into the news a year ago, when people were dying daily of starvation. After an international furor, Hezbollah and the government allowed UN aid convoys in. They arrive once every three or four months, but we lack all the necessities of life—food, fuel, medicine, milk, detergent, electricity, sewing needles, shoes, slippers. A pack of matches costs the equivalent of $13. A pound of sugar can cost up to $100; of coffee, $50. Except for social media, we’re cut off from the world.
We are often under attack. In December, it was days of machine gun and sniper fire, followed by 600 shells and more than 30 improvised “elephant” rockets. Five people died and 65 were wounded. The latest round of bombing began when the UN convened peace talks in late January; 12 people have died from the elephant rockets since then. The wounded had to be treated in their homes because the hospital was destroyed in the December bombing. Our doctor is a veterinarian.
People are still dying of starvation. Madaya went without milk for 11 months. For a while, Hezbollah members were selling it for $100 a pint, but that, too, has stopped. Children are getting just a fraction of the protein and calcium they need. In November, five infants died at birth because their mothers didn’t have the nourishment needed during pregnancy. What grieves us most is the deaths of relatives and friends that could have been prevented if they had been able to leave for medical care.
Just in the past weeks, Ali Ghuson, 30, died of kidney failure. We had been trying to get him evacuated for medical care for four months. There are 27 other people waiting for such evacuations. A mother died in childbirth with her infant. Two women died of illness, one of kidney failure, another of heart illness. Others have died from sniper shootings and shelling, including a 2-year-old child.
I was born in Madaya in 1987 and was a fourth-year student of French literature at the University of Damascus when the Syrian revolution erupted six years ago. I live with my mother and brother here in Madaya and teach at a junior high and high school. When the Assad regime began attacking the nearby town of Zabadani in July 2015, I became a media activist, using my camera to document the barrel bombings there and in Madaya. I began posting the videos on the Internet.
I am haunted by what I’ve witnessed. I recall trying to extricate the body of a man buried under the rubble—along with his wife, a daughter, and another relative—only to have his limb separate from his body. We stayed three hours into the night to bury them because a sniper was shooting at us.
I have nightmares. I see the bodies of people who died in bombings. I see the people who died of starvation and who I helped to bury. I will always remember Suleiman Fares, a farmer, aged 50, who weighed only 55 pounds when we buried him.
I have had personal trauma. Because I have been a media activist, I cannot stay in the town when the government takes it back or I will be drafted, so I was on the list of 1,500 townspeople scheduled to leave this past December as part of an agreement between the regime and the town leaders. It was a bleak moment; we knew we’d be leaving behind our families and our memories. Despite all the calamities, Madaya is still our home. Some of us roamed the streets taking pictures and saying farewell. Then the deal fell through, so I am still here.
No one thinks the current situation will last for long. We’ve seen the government starve other towns and then deport their residents. We weep as we watch. First, Daraya last August, then Moadamiya in October, then Khan Al Sheih in November, Al Tal and East Aleppo in December, and then in January Wadi Barada. Except for Aleppo, almost no one outside of Syria noticed.
Many of us think the regime has promised Madaya and Zabadani to Hezbollah as a reward for its military support. Madaya lies just over the mountain and across the border from Shiite villages that Hezbollah controls in Lebanon. Hezbollah isn’t leaving the area. Their forces are stationed in regime checkpoints, but they are in charge. They built a big underground base called Marj al Tal in the Madaya valley. Every night, we see Hezbollah trucks carrying weapons and driving through the plain of Zabadani to Lebanon.
A local youth who joined the National Defense Force, a Syrian regime militia, told his family about a quarrel he’d had with a member of Hezbollah about the future of the two towns. “When will the people of Zabadani be back?” the NDF member asked. The Hezbollah fighter responded, “This land belongs to us now. We paid the price in martyrs.” Hezbollah is not here to fight those who revolted against the regime but for its own agenda. Hezbollah wants to build a state that extends from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon through Zabadani to Qusair in Homs province.
Madaya was once a very rich place. Everyone had a car. Everyone had a second house and land in the mountains. Many townspeople had big investments in Damascus, and many Damascenes had homes here or in Zabadani. But it’s long been known as a “town of troublemakers.” Because it’s just across the border from Lebanon, our markets once were full of smuggled foreign goods.
Our first anti-regime demonstration in the Arab Spring was on March 18, 2011, three days after the protest in Daraa, in the south. We didn’t demand reform; we were in the streets chanting “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
The first year of the revolution was peaceful in Madaya, and then the regime facilitated access to weapons. It was very subtle. Soldiers at checkpoints around the town were allowed to sell us their weapons. On one occasion, the regime attacked the town but on withdrawing left behind a truck full of ammunition.
In January 2012, the people of Madaya and Zabadani announced that the two towns had been liberated. It was a crazy step. We never had the weapons or ammunition, but the will of the people, especially the youth, drove everyone toward folly. People here are very proud, even arrogant.
The siege began in early July 2015 with a government and Hezbollah offensive against Zabadani. The ceasefire two months later, arranged by Iran, paired Madaya and Zabadani, two Sunni mountain towns with a population of more than 60,000, with Fouaa and Kafraya, two mostly Shiite towns under siege from Islamist rebels who’d conquered Idlib province that spring. Iran negotiated the deal for the Syrian regime. From then on, no aid came to Madaya unless the same aid went to Fouaa and Kafraya, with a total population of 10,000.
Madaya was far worse off, because there was no way to smuggle food in. Now we are surrounded by checkpoints, and 6,000 landmines are sown around the town. As the government forced out the population of Zabadani and other towns, our population swelled to 40,000.
Famine crept slowly into town. The newly displaced arrived, cold and hungry, with what they were wearing. Some of the families had to wait for hours in the cold while we found them a place to stay.
Then food began to run short. The shops ran out, nothing could be brought in from outside, and emaciated people started to appear in the streets. People would leave their homes early in the morning and walk the streets asking for food. Children carried small buckets and knocked on doors, begging for a bite to eat.
I remember a girl who knocked at our door, asking for a morsel for her mother, who had been unconscious for three days. People would pass out in the streets. Children in my class would fall unconscious in the middle of class. We always kept some sugar to revive such children.
Then people started to die of hunger. I remember the first one had been without food for eight days. We did our best to report to the world what was happening, but we communicated only a small part of the horrifying picture.
I recall a pupil named Hassan Ala’a Eddin who suddenly stopped coming to high school. One day in January 2016, I was visiting the hospital and saw a boy lying on his stomach. I was asking the doctor about his condition when the boy raised his hand and said: “Teacher did you forget me? I am Hassan, your student.” At that moment, time stood still, and my whole universe turned black. He’d gone without food for a week, and couldn’t eat even when a new food shipment arrived because his gut had closed. A friend and I lobbied the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to evacuate him and his sister to Damascus, but he died the next day; she survived.
There was a family from Zabadani living as internally displaced people (IDPs) in Madaya. The father had been killed, and the family consisted of the mother, her two daughters, and the grandfather. One day, when the family failed to find anything to eat, the daughter, 11, wrote her final will and put it under her pillow and slept. The next day, the family shared it on social media and the girl became famous.
On January 12, 2016, we got our first aid shipment, but many starving people couldn’t eat because their stomachs had closed. Malnutrition was widespread, especially kwashiorkor, a disease of severe protein deficiency. Children’s bellies would swell like drums, but they would lose the ability to eat. More than 200 children were affected. We started a media campaign, and medicines were allowed in to cure them.
We’ve all managed to adapt. People are not depressed. They want to get on with their lives. Young people are getting married at double the rate of before. You will see people walking on the streets seemingly unaffected by the threat of bombing. The siege is not the end of the world.
And we’ve learned great lessons from the siege. We learned to preserve the happiness we have, to conserve our resources, and not to overeat. We learned that you are very lucky when you have enough food for each day that you live.
We make use of everything we find. We have very strange meals that you’d never think of. We try to turn the food that’s delivered here into tasty meals. The UN trucks bring beans, bulgur, and rice. We use lentils to make kebabs. Some people mash bulgur and rice and mix them into a cereal to make a traditional Syrian sweet. Others fill grape leaves with lentils and make kibbeh, a dish that usually has bulgur and meat. We turn chickpeas into coffee beans.
We use blankets from the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent to make clothes. The big challenge is heating. At night the temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and we’ve been without electricity for two and a half years. A vast forest that, since the 1950s, covered the area between Madaya and Biqin has been cut down and used for heating; now we dig up the roots of trees. People chop up the furniture in their houses for heating and cooking. We burn plastic and distill the vapor to produce the fuel that powers small generators.
We have three schools, and we opened a fourth because of the demand. Some of the newlyweds are returning to school to receive a high school diploma. Children play differently here. Mornings they go to school, and afternoons they search for wood. They make a game of fetching wood or water.
Despite all the suffering, our children have hope for the future. When you meet them, you feel they are adults dressed in children’s uniforms. You can see it when they stage short plays. One was about the coexistence of Muslims and Christians in Syria. It told the story of a Muslim child who was starving, and his father couldn’t help him. The child collapsed on the ground and was about to die. Finally a Christian man came by, offered him food, and saved his life. The children played the scene so powerfully that even we, people who have been suffering siege and starvation, cried as we watched.
But in real life, we’ve lost hope of rescue. When the UN convoys first came a year ago, people would run to meet the UN staff and ask them what the likely scenario was for Madaya. These days, when an aid shipment comes, no one talks with them. Not long ago, children of 7 or 8, without anyone’s prompting, approached a convoy with cartoons they had drawn with the caption: “We don’t want aid. Put an end to the siege.”
Most of my friends feel the UN is responsible for the expulsions from other towns. The UN has forgotten its own slogans about human rights and protecting civilians. If we ask the UN to break the siege, the reply we get is negative. They don’t apply pressure or help even one sick person. All the UN does is document the situation.
In December, one group of those getting ready to depart was looking forward to leaving the town. They’d lost their families and property and had nothing but sad memories. I am one of those who didn’t want to leave. I’ve said I’m ready to spend my life eating bulgur under siege. But this is wishful thinking. The reality is that we will leave, sooner or later.
I feel terrible pain every time I think of the green buses the government uses to remove the population of towns it takes over. The choice is bitter, siege or expulsion. I saw what happened to my friends from Daraya who gave up their homes and left for Idlib. Every time I hear that our departure is imminent, I go through agony. To abandon my loved ones, my friends, the memories of my childhood, the grave of my dead father, the taste of water here, the valley and the mountain—it is hard to leave all of that. Your home remains your first love.