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.