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Under Siege in Damascus: An Activist Speaks Out

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Zara Hakim is a Syrian currently living under siege in a southern suburb of Damascus. One of the many activists still inside Syria, she and her team have, for the past two weeks, been working to raise international attention for their 'Break the Siege' campaign. It attempts to tell the story of civilians trapped in a conflict that has just entered its 33rd month. I chat to her about life, starvation and Syria's future; all names have been changed for security reasons and some locations are deliberately vague.

Luke: Tell me about yourself - How did you become involved?
Zara: Before the revolution I was a tutor at Damascus University's College of Engineering. When the popular protests began on 15th March 2011, I was one of thousands that took to the streets to demand change. Since then, I have witnessed the escalation, suffering and death that this conflict has wrought. I co-founded 'Break the Siege' when I realized that the international community is largely unaware of what it's like to live in these conditions.

What is your role in the campaign?
I'm the Media Coordinator. It's my job to speak to our activists, obtain new media, liaise with other organisations, speak to NGOs and generally get our message out there. Social networks have yielded the best response so far, but it's not easy; power cuts are frequent and you must be careful not to disclose your location.

How dangerous is it for activists right now?
It's dangerous for everyone, not just activists. But due to my work, I take extra care; I've destroyed my phone and lost count of the number of times I've changed location - monitoring people and their communications is common practice by the regime. We're likely to be tortured if arrested, so activists share limited information about themselves, otherwise we risk compromising each other. And due to where I live, I could be shelled at any time, or even shot if I try to leave.

What is it like to live under siege?
In Syria, being under siege means that your city, town, or urban district has been completely sealed off from the rest of the country. In most cases, Assad's military has set up blockades that are policed at multiple checkpoints; no one goes in or out. This means that food, fuel, and medical supplies are not able to enter, thus adding to the humanitarian crisis. Starvation is a growing concern, and as winter sets in, the lack of adequate shelter will only make things worse. We estimate that there are nearly 1.5 million people currently trapped in these conditions throughout Syria.

What are people eating then?
It varies between each area, but the worst case is the city of Muadhamiyah, south of Damascus. People there are just surviving on olives, leaves, and grass; there has been a blockade for nearly 14 months, so the situation is desperate - they haven't tasted bread in a very long time. The siege was temporarily relaxed during October, which allowed about 5000 civilians to leave. But they were mostly women, children, and the sick. Men had a harder time getting out as the military suspects a strong presence of opposition fighters in the area.

I've seen some crazy stuff on the news - Are people really eating cats, dogs and lions?
Yes and no. About two months ago, local clerics declared cats, dogs, and even donkeys fit for eating. Normally Islam forbids such things, but the simple matter of staying alive overrules everything now. As for the lion, that was purely symbolic. That image from the Al-Qarya Al-Shama zoo in Eastern Ghoutta was taken to represent our desire for Assad's demise, whose name is one of the many words for 'lion' in Arabic.

Are hospitals still operating?
Yes, but barely. Those that are functioning don't have enough trained staff and the blockades make medicines and hardware scarce. In Eastern Ghoutta there are four makeshift clinics treating people, but the majority of doctors are medical students who were unable to complete their training. I've even heard of dentists performing complex surgeries.

Why do you think Assad's forces are using these tactics?
It's easier for them this way. They were first used in Homs, October 2011, and have been employed ever since. A blockade requires fewer personnel and minimizes any losses an offensive might cause. We're forced into a state of constant fear as Assad tries to assert his dominance; and the problem is that it's killing innocent civilians. They justify their actions by claiming that opposition fighters are in these areas, but the truth is, most people have weapons here - our neighbors, cousins, sons - they are just trying to protect their families.

What do you make of reports that foreign extremist groups are operating alongside opposition fighters?
These people are mainly in the north of the county; we don't see them here in the Damascus suburbs. But if their participation helps topple Assad, then let it be! It's not a big deal to have fighters from the Al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other Al-Qaeda sympathisers. After Assad is gone, we can decide through democratic vote who will rule the new Syria.

Do you think your plan is working - what sort of reaction has the campaign had?
Mixed, to say the least. Of course, people understand the humanitarian crisis, but internationally speaking? The response has been disheartening. News agencies aren't willing to cover the campaign and so I don't feel that governments overseas will be compelled to act. How is it that the world forced Assad to open areas for the UN's investigation into the chemical attack, and yet the same cannot be done for those under siege, dying of malnutrition, and in urgent need of medical care? These things need to be addressed. This is why we'll continue our campaign for the sake of the people, for the sake of human rights.

Thanks, Zara. Good luck.