In Syria’s eastern city of Deir el-Zour, supplies are running so short that desperate residents are selling their gold, valuables and even their homes for food or an exit permit allowing them to escape a siege by both government troops and Islamic State terrorists.
The terrosists have blockaded government-held areas of the city for over a year, and some of its 200,000 residents are slowly starving.
While international attention was focused recently on Madaya – a rebel-held town surrounded by pro-Assad troops near the capital of Damascus – the United Nations and aid agencies say another catastrophe is unfolding in Deir el-Zour.
The civil war has transformed a once oil-rich city into a place where even something as simple as making tea is a struggle, according to residents who have fled, because of severe shortages of food, water and fuel.
Many people live on bread and water – and there are long waits for both. Taps are shut off for days at a time, and the water that flows out for only a few hours is brackish. The city hasn’t had electricity for over 10 months, with little fuel available for generators and water pumps.
The U.N. warned last week that living conditions have deteriorated significantly in Deir el-Zour. Students are frequently absent from school because of malnutrition. The only remaining civilian hospital needs drugs and supplies, as well as staff.
Unverified reports cited up to 20 malnutrition deaths, the U.N. said in its report. But Ali al-Rahbi, spokesman for the Justice for Life Observatory for Deir el-Zour, said his group documented 27 deaths.
IS surrounds Deir el-Zour and won’t let people and supplies in by land; the Syrian government, which controls part of the city and its airport, won’t allow supplies to be brought in by air or let its people out.
Deir el-Zour is the largest of about 15 besieged communities in Syria, cutting off about 400,000 people from aid. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said both the Syrian government and the rebels are committing war crimes by deliberately starving civilians.
The city recently has been the focus of renewed efforts by Islamic State to retake it. An offensive over the weekend captured new areas from government forces, killing over 250 troops and civilians, and capturing hundreds.
The offensive “is putting thousands of people in the line of fire,” said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
A resident who identified himself as Bahaa said he lost more than 33 pounds during 11 months in the city and escaped in November to Gazientep in southern Turkey weighing only 121 pounds.
The man, who did not give his real name because he feared for reprisals against relatives left behind, said he paid 250,000 Syrian pounds (over $600) in bribes to receive permission to fly out. It was too expensive to bring his whole family.
“We sold our gold” to raise the money for the bribes, he said. “Other families have sold their homes.”