In The Drowned And The Saved and If This Is A Man - Primo Levi's devastating books on the Auschwitz death camp - Levi talks about the presiding importance of food if a prisoner was to have even a hope of surviving. The camp's meagre piece of morning bread ("the holy grey slab") was painfully small, but he recalled that some inmates would keep morsels in their pockets for hours, fooling themselves that this way they could stave off hunger. Meanwhile, prisoners would try to position themselves in a certain part of the queue for their single ladle-spoon of soup, so that when they got theirs it would at least be from the bottom of the vat where the soup had a thicker consistency than at the watery surface. Such things - and others, like forcing oneself to try to wash every day despite the squalid conditions - we're sometimes literally the difference between life and death in Auschwitz. Even if you avoided the gas chambers, without basic dignity, you would probably decline and eventually perish.
Levi's preoccupation with food and survival comes to mind when reading the harrowing new Amnesty report on Yarmouk refugee camp, the district of south-west Damascus besieged by Syrian government forces. Here, as if trapped in a modern version of a Second World War ghetto or death camp, some 20,000 people are trying to withstand periodic military bombardments, a chronic lack of medicines, a total absence of mains electricity for almost a year, and more than seven months of acute food deprivation.
Things are truly desperate. Two out of every three people in Yarmouk are now said to be suffering malnutrition, and at least 128 people have starved to death since last July. This is what one person in Yarmouk told Amnesty:
I eat anything that I can get my hands on. I eat on average one meal every 30 hours. Either we have to go to the small field areas overlooked by snipers, looking for herbs, or group together to buy a kilo of rice or lentils at 10,000 Syrian pounds [about £42] and cook it, but we cannot afford to do this each day due to the cost. For a year and two months we have been without electricity. There are some generators but the diesel for it is scarce and expensive. After some recent food deliveries got into the camp, the prices have gone down by about 30%, but they do not reach the markets and are instead sold on the informal market like drugs.
"The last time I ate vegetables was more than eight months ago", says another resident, while the ersatz vegetables to which many Yarmoukians are resorting are actually weeds or cactus leaves scavenged from Yarmouk's streets and small fields. Families have also been reduced to killing and eating cats and dogs (their own?). As a result, the barely-functioning hospitals have had to treat people for food poisoning, and there are cases of rickets and keratomalacia (an eye disorder caused by severe vitamin A deficiency). Meanwhile, in a piece of utterly cold-blooded cruelty, the Syrian army has deployed snipers to shoot at people foraging for food (what on earth is going through the heads of the men who pull the trigger in these situations?).
Here's another passage from the Amnesty report:
As the impact of the siege took hold, local people had to resort to increasingly desperate measures. First, when there was no more flour to make bread, families baked substitutes using lentils and then crushed bulgur wheat. Then, these supplies too were exhausted or became too expensive ...
From aerial attacks on people in bread queues to the medieval sieges of entire communities, it's a measure of how far Syria has descended into its own living nightmare that these kinds of depraved war crimes have now become almost routine. It's three years this week since the "Arab Spring" (remember that?) protests began in Syria. The sheer viciousness of the Syrian government's response to those original protests has been breath-taking, while armed groups like the Al Nusra Front or ISIS have themselves begun to match the cruelty of the Syrian government's torturers or its notorious shabiha militia.
This week there's a groundswell of awareness-raising on Syria under the #withSyria banner and things like the powerful Save The Children "Most Shocking Second a Day" video from last week. Unbelievably, last month's UN Security Council resolution (2139) was the very first one to actually address the humanitarian situation in Syria (whether this will actually lead to the required lifting of sieges now affecting some 250,000 people remains to be seen). Meanwhile, there's an Amnesty petition about the Syrian sieges here.
Are we still going to be talking about the "Syria crisis" in a year's time? If so, will things be better or even worse than they are already? The latter hardly bears thinking about. To me, that "when there was no more flour to make bread ..." phrase I mentioned earlier has an uncanny echo of Martin Niemöller's "First they came for the Jews" statement, his famous call to conscience and call to action. It's a mood that feels appropriate for Syria today. Niemöller, the German pastor who went from Hitler supporter to repentant defender of Jews and other persecuted groups, would have seen more than a touch of Nazism in the horrific siege of Yarmouk. And so would Primo Levi.