BEIRUT: Accused of using starvation as a weapon of war, the Syrian government continues to besiege areas across the country, forcing civilians to find new ways to make ends meet.
The humanitarian situation in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk made headlines late last year when dozens died due to starvation, but while sporadic deliveries of food aid are made to the camp, the siege continues and most people have started growing their own food.
In some areas under siege, such as the Ghouta area to the east of Damascus, this has not been too problematic, as it was already an agricultural area, but in places such as Yarmouk, residents have had to teach themselves how to farm.
“The idea began when the area came under siege,” last July, said an activist from Yarmouk who did not want to be identified. “We began to lack basic materials such as food, electricity and fuel and the people were obliged to think about alternative solutions such as planting vegetables and using alternative power.”
With the group he is a member of, the Jafra Foundation, which works with Palestinian communities across Syria, the activist began planting in “any empty spaces,” and individuals began planting on their rooftops, dangerous due to the threat of snipers. “It is risky on rooftops,” he said, “but it is risky everywhere.”
At first, people learned how to plant vegetables from YouTube videos, and then passed on tips to others, said Ansar Hevi, an activist with the 15th Garden, a farmers solidarity network which supports Syrians by offering them practical advice and also material support.
Seeds, for example, have been hard to procure in Yarmouk, as many seed companies have closed since the war began, and many farmers were forced to give up their seed stocks to the government, according to Hevi, so the 15th Garden has brought seeds in from abroad, which then had to be smuggled into the camp.
Soil was brought in by truck from fields adjacent to Yarmouk, also under siege, a route rendered dangerous again due to snipers, the activist said, water is pumped from wells, and fuel is mixed with oil to last longer. Residents have also been composting to make their own soil and even using human waste to make fuel.
Plants are grown in all possible spaces, and the activist said all organizations in the camp and most individuals have their own gardens now, sometimes simply in the spaces between buildings. In Zabadani, in Qalamoun, when shelling was at its most intense, residents planted crops within their own homes so they were not forced outside.
In Yarmouk, the activist said that people mostly grow cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini, but even then people do not have enough to eat, and there is no bread – wheat being too difficult to grow, and requiring machines which in turn rely on fuel, a scarcity, and lots of open space.
But, Hevi said, the ability to produce one’s own food was important for people in these areas. While the U.N. occasionally delivers food baskets to the area, which they refer to as “food security,” being able to grow one’s own food is much more sustainable and offers “food sovereignty.”
Growing one’s own food “makes sense on so many levels,” said Hevi, who is German-Iraqi. “You can produce your own food, and you can also sell it, so you can refinance some of the project.”
But more than that, she added, “it shows that they are all capable of organizing their own society, without the regime.”
The 15th Garden has held workshops on the Turkish border, where organic farming techniques were taught to Syrian activists who could take the knowledge home with them. Turkish farmers invited the workshop participants to their farmland, to see firsthand these new skills in action.
It is soon producing a pamphlet on seed reproduction, with help from Palestinian, Lebanese, Turkish and German farmers – which will be disseminated in besieged areas.
The farmers that the 15th Garden work with all use organic methods, as they are used to working with alternative methods and materials, and so are more attuned to what Syrians in besieged areas need.
But even in Ghouta, where farming is much easier, given the land, malnutrition is still rife, and many have died due to starvation, said Tareq al-Dimashqi, an anti-regime activist from the area.
“I eat two meals each day. But other people don’t eat even one meal. My friend has four children, often he goes to bed hungry so that they have food to eat,” he said.
Dimashqi said his meals mainly consist of bulgur and bread made from barley, as wheat is too expensive, and occasionally some vegetables he plants in his garden.
Farmers in Ghouta, unable to afford the diesel to pump water from under the ground, have begun using water from the sewage system, Dimashqi said, which has led to outbreaks of gastro-intestinal problems.
These siege tactics, while they endure, are “medieval” and a “clear violation of all norms and international law,” Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’ deputy director for the Middle East.
But he criticized the international community for failing to act on a U.N. Security Council Resolution, urging aid to be let in. “Yarmouk is a 10-minute drive from the U.N. in central Damascus and yet here you have people dying of starvation.”
In previously besieged areas which have begun signing truces with the regime, and in areas guarded by Islamist groups, Hevi has been relieved to see that the gardens have survived. “Which is why these projects are so attractive, they are not anything anyone could criticize.”
As one new farmer recounted to the 15th garden, “It’s not about being opposition or pro-regime, but when you work on the ground, on your own soil, it’s actually yours and no political group can claim it.”