In besieged Syrian city, residents sell gold for food

By Zeina Karam and Philip Issa, AP

BEIRUT, Lebanon–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 militants.

The extremists have blockaded government-held areas of the city for over a year, and some of its 200,000 residents are slowly starving — while troops and militias supporting President Bashar Assad exploit their suffering.

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 other 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.

The Islamic State group 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.

The city, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Damascus, is divided roughly along the Euphrates River, with the Islamic State group on the eastern side and the Syrian government on the western side, although IS controls some territory on the western bank as well.

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. Reports of starvation in Madaya prompted an international outcry, and two aid convoys last week delivered humanitarian aid to civilians there.

So far, no such aid is forthcoming to Deir el-Zour.

The city recently has been the focus of renewed efforts by Islamic State militants 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.

How the city came to be under such a punishing siege from both sides only makes sense in the perverse circumstances of Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year.