By Raja Abdulrahim
6:00 AM PST, January 31, 2014
As the long-awaited Syrian peace talks began in Geneva this month, the dwindling supply of bulgur wheat in besieged Homs all but ran out.
The grain was the last remaining food staple in a dozen opposition-held neighborhoods of Syria’s third-largest city, which have been under a government blockade for more than a year. Residents face starvation as food and medicine are prevented from entering and people from leaving, activists say.
Like other parts of Syria under blockade by either government or opposition forces, Homs has experienced a dramatic dwindling of essential supplies. Much of what is left to eat for the thousands who remain in central-city neighborhoods, including the historic Old City, are wild plants and leaves found growing along streets and sidewalks.
“Only the very lucky ones still have bulgur wheat,” activist Abu Bilal Al-Homsi said this week. “Everyone else lives off of the non-poisonous plants and cook them with some spices.”
A deal reached at the Geneva conference last weekend to aid the trapped civilians has apparently fallen apart, with rebels worried that they would be subject to increased government attacks if women and children were allowed to leave Homs.
United Nations officials had hoped that trapped residents could begin leaving Monday, with aid convoys then entering the neighborhoods.
But residents said relief supplies would not last long or provide adequate food for the thousands in need. The only solution, they said, was for the government to lift the blockade and establish a humanitarian corridor.
Negotiations continue and the World Food Program is waiting for word from the United Nations, said program spokeswoman Dina Elkassaby. Trucks packed with food and 100 boxes of nutrition products to treat malnutrition are ready for when clearance is given, she said.
“The only information that I have is access hasn't been granted so the rations haven't moved,” she said.
The issue of aid to Homs appeared to shift the focus of the peace talks from the larger challenge of ending the nearly 3-year-old conflict. No substantive results are expected to emerge from the initial round of talks – including an aid deal for Homs – by the time they end Friday.
The Syrian Red Crescent this week called for separating “the humanitarian file from the political file.”
“The ultimate solution that works all over Syria and not just Homs is to push all the parties to the conflict to announce their commitment to provide safe and unhindered access for aid and medical convoys to all places in Syria,” the group said in a statement.
“I mean, if until now they haven’t been able to deliver a few vehicles of humanitarian aid, how are they going to find a solution to [President] Bashar [Assad] and his gang?” said Abu Bisaam, a resident of a blockaded Homs district.
The U.N. estimates that about 250,000 people in Syria are now living under siege.
For months, the remaining residents of Homs have scavenged through the homes of those who have fled, living off rice and olives they discovered.
Muhammad Abu Hamza, a rebel in the Old City, released a short film about the humanitarian situation inside besieged neighborhoods on the occasion of the Geneva talks. In one scene, an opposition fighter scoops up handfuls of bulgur from the floor of a damaged storefront and sifts through it, picking out pieces of rock and glass.
“The goal of the film was to relay our message in a different way so the picture of what is happening is clear,” Abu Hamza said.
Children are drinking broth made from the leaves of lemon trees to treat diarrhea, the result of a diet consisting of only olives, said Omar Al-Tilawi, a resident of Bab Sbaa.
At least 15 people have died of starvation, said Al-Homsi, and this week a man died of a leg injury because of a lack of medicine. Ten people have died after eating poisonous plants, he said, and hundreds more as a result of the continued aerial bombardment on the rebel-held parts of the city.
“There is nothing left here that supports daily living,” Al-Homsi said. “The infrastructure is demolished and there is no water or electricity. It is as if we live in the Stone Age.”
On Thursday, the U.N. distributed more than 1,000 food parcels to the besieged Yarmouk camp in Damascus, home to Palestinian refugees and Syrians. Activists inside the camp have reported dozens of starvation deaths.
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