When Bashar Assad’s forces gassed the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh in August, the fumes penetrated Qusai Zakaria’s apartment within minutes. A female neighbor knocked on his door with two unconscious children, but he couldn’t breathe or talk.
The 29-year-old struggled to the street, where women and children were running about wildly and dropping dead; he saw a young teenager with pale blue eyes on the ground “staring at nothing.” Then his heart stopped, and his body was thrown on a pile of corpses with white foam dripping from their mouths.
Miraculously, Zakaria revived (about 1,300 other civilians died) and he became a voice for civilian survivors. Recently, he escaped Syria and I spoke with him in Washington. He bears witness to a shameful global failure to confront what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls “the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world.”
As Zakaria makes clear, the regime was starving residents of Moadamiyeh for a year before the gas attack – and continues to besiege survivors, along with more than 220,000 civilians in other areas held by rebels. This in direct defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution last month.
When the Syrian uprising began, civilians in Moadamiyeh demonstrated peacefully for an end to a corrupt Assad family dictatorship that had lasted more than four decades. A middle-class suburb of four-story apartment houses, adjacent to open farmland, the suburb sat between key regime military bases, and the government forces began arresting, torturing, and raping residents.
“They would beat young men and throw them in garbage cans, and tell them to stay there, or they would go to houses and beat people,” recounts Zakaria, a former hotel worker. “It was too much humiliation to handle.” In mid-2012, regime tanks rolled into Moadamiyeh, killing about 500 civilians and arresting 600 to 700, including some women and kids.
It was only after the regime brutalized civilians that residents of Moadamiyeh decided they must defend their community. “Ordinary people sold their jewelry and the rich donated, and we bought weapons from smugglers and corrupt officers, mostly AK-47s. We recruited young men who had done military service,” Zakaria said. Most of his family fled, but he joined the local relief committee that distributed food and medicine to the needy.
In November 2012, the regime laid siege to the suburb and its remaining 13,000 people (including 3,000 women and children), cut off electricity, and barred any food from entering or people from leaving. “On a quiet day, we got shelled with 60-70 mortars,” recounts Zakaria, while helicopters shot missiles into apartment buildings and jet fighters dropped bombs, smashing schools, hospitals, and mosques.
Zakaria’s relief council scoured abandoned apartments for bags of flour or pasta to distribute to residents. By mid-2013, starvation set in. “By then we had only grape leaves, olives, and herbs from the ground, adding salt and pepper to make a sort of soup,” he said. “Malnutrition started. We were telling the world, but all we got was speeches, which we couldn’t eat.”
After the gas attack, on Aug. 21, 2013, residents hoped they would be rescued. “We knew any kind of strike would shake the regime.”
When President Barack Obama opted instead for the chemical-weapons accord “we were disappointed and angry,” says Zakaria. “We felt like he was telling Assad to do more, to use new means of death.” In other words, the accord brokered by Washington and Moscow to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal gave Assad a green light to kill by other means.
And that’s what he did, again starving Moadamiyeh after the Geneva talks ended. Zakaria, who spoke English and had met Western journalists, went on hunger strike for 33 days. He sent desperate messages about Moadamiyeh’s plight to the West.
During talks in Geneva in January and February, the regime let some food in, letting thousands of residents return. But as soon as the talks ended, Assad stopped the humanitarian aid convoys.
“I know the United States is one of the main donors,” Zakaria told me, “but the aid is going to organizations that work under the regime, which gives him (Assad) more cards to force civilians or rebels to surrender. They should find a way to get the aid into besieged towns.”
Here’s my suggestion: Instead of sending video cameras to civilian rebels to film the carnage, or ambulances to take victims to gutted hospitals (the latest idea), the United States should get real. Send vetted rebel groups the heavy weapons they need to shoot down planes that bomb civilians, and to ensure that aid reaches the needy. Doing less makes us complicit in Assad’s war crimes.
Trudy Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.