Syria: Government must lift deadly siege of Daraa al-Balad and allow humanitarian aid to flow

The Syrian government must immediately lift a two-month siege of opposition stronghold Daraa al-Balad and allow unfettered humanitarian access to the area where around 20,000 people are living in dire conditions with scarce supplies of food and barely any medical care, Amnesty International said today.

Thousands have fled Daraa al-Balad, a southern city of Daraa, since the siege began on 24 June. Humanitarian agencies have been unable to access the besieged area, bringing an end to the delivery of already limited humanitarian and medical aid. Those trapped in Daraa al-Balad are struggling on a daily basis to find food, water and medication, especially after the only medical point was forced to shut down after being hit by the government’s shelling. Scant supplies are trickling through smuggling routes to be sold for exorbitant prices that only a few can afford.

“Civilians are paying the price for battles they have never chosen. The Syrian government must immediately lift the siege to facilitate unfettered access for humanitarian organizations and allow the medical evacuation of the sick and injured,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

“All parties to the conflict must end unlawful attacks, grant safe passage to civilians wanting to flee the area and comply with international humanitarian law at all times.”

Between 18 till 24 August, Amnesty International spoke with four individuals in Daraa al-Balad, namely a doctor, an activist, two residents, as well as two humanitarian workers.

One humanitarian worker told the organisation that there is only enough food in Daraa al-Balad to last two weeks to a month. There is no electricity or medication available. The worker added that no humanitarian aid organization has been allowed into the besieged area– the Syrian government is only allowing aid distribution to internally displaced persons (IDPs) outside the besieged area.

Humanitarian emergency

Government forces have tightened the noose around Daraa al-Balad in a bid to root out remaining armed groups and return the whole province to government control. Sijneh road, Saraya crossing, Al-Sad road and the Palestinian and Golan camp area have all been closed, isolating the neighbourhoods from the eastern and western Daraa countryside and city centre.

Residents told Amnesty International that only women and children under 15 have been allowed out of the besieged area on foot after being subjected to security checks and told to leave their identity cards behind.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 38,600 people, mostly women and children, have fled Daraa al-Balad to other parts of Daraa city and the surrounding areas. The exodus happened after the government briefly opened the Saraya checkpoint for people to leave but then closed it. Most IDPs are being hosted by relatives and friends while others are living in six collective shelters such as schools and mosques.

Clashes between the Syrian government and armed groups in the area have left hundreds dead or injured since late July. Artillery shelling by government forces on 26 July hit the only medical facility in the neighbourhood. Two doctors told Amnesty International said since then, medical workers have been forced to see patients in their homes, providing them with the little care they can offer.

Civilians are paying the price for battles they have never chosen.

Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher

Patients with serious health conditions used to be referred to hospitals in government-controlled areas, like the Daraa National Hospital in Daraa al Mhatta. However, medical evacuations are now rarely approved by the Syrian government. Many sick and injured choose to remain in Daraa al-Balad out of fear of being detained or facing reprisals by government forces.

A woman residing in Daraa al-Balad told Amnesty International on 20 August about the living conditions:

“The shops are almost empty of all food. I am using what I have at home already. Pasta, rice, lentils, etc. There is a woman in the neighbourhood who has a cow, and she distributes milk to some of us, which we use to make yoghurt. There is no electricity for lengthy periods of time, even before the siege,” she said.

She described the desperate need for humanitarian and medical aid since all crossings had been blocked, and how rare and tortuous urgent medical evacuations are:

“My cousin, from my father’s side, had health complications and he needed urgent medical care, but we were not able to get him out, the government refused. He died… My neighbour also died from a stroke. He suffered from health problems, but he was too afraid to go to a hospital outside Daraa al-Balad. Even though he was old, he was afraid of being arrested.”

A media activist told Amnesty International researchers that the siege on the neighbourhood was because of its political stance against the May presidential elections.

“Once again the Syrian government is resorting to its ‘surrender or starve’ tactic which involves a combination of unlawful siege and indiscriminate bombardment of areas packed with civilians, in a bid to force armed opposition forces to surrender and evacuate. People are being starved and deprived of basic necessities in punishment for expressing views that differ to the government’s,” said Diana Semaan.