‘Everybody is starving. We are a town of ghosts, the walking dead’
The Syrian regime’s siege of Madaya has left its people a stark choice: death by bullet or by hunger
Ramita Navai Published: 10 January 2016
AMAL NIMA could not run. Not just because she was nine months pregnant, but because she was weak with hunger. Despite this, she thought she had a chance of escaping: an informant had told her about a hidden safe route out of Madaya.
The decision had been easy. No food had reached the town for months, and people around her were slowly starving to death. Some had already died. Nearly all her pregnant friends had miscarried through malnutrition.
Amal was desperate to save her unborn child’s life, and leaving was the only way. She took her daughter Raghad, 13, with her. Her husband, Yasen, and elder daughter, Rahaf, 15, stayed behind.
Madaya, a centre of opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime about 25 miles northwest of Damascus, was blockaded by Syrian government forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah in July in retaliation for the capturing of the towns of Fua and Kefraya in Idlib province by rebels.
The pro-Assad forces then set about imprisoning Madaya’s 40,000 inhabitants. They encircled the town with thick coils of barbed wire. They established more than 170 checkpoints patrolled by armed Hezbollah and regime soldiers. In case anyone still managed to make it out, they planted hundreds of landmines.
Such siege warfare was condemned in September by a United Nations commission of inquiry on the Syrian conflict.
It was snowing when Amal and Raghad left their home in the district of Huruf last Sunday. They walked towards the western edge of town, picking their way carefully along an icy dirt track that wound its way through fields.
Amal Nima, who was pregnant, and her daughter were shot dead as they tried to escape Amal Nima’s daughter Raghad, 13 Others joined them, including two boys, aged 11 or 12, sent by their parents. They advanced in silence, listening out for noises above the wind.
Amal was the first to see the Hezbollah fighters lying in wait. Before she could turn and shout at her daughter to run, the gunmen opened fire.
Raghad was shot dead instantly. Amal was brought down by another bullet.
Two young men in the group ran towards her, but as they lifted her they too were shot. One, Ziad Ghalyoun, was killed; the other — his friends do not want to reveal his name — was captured by the soldiers and has not been seen since.
Word soon reached Amal’s family. They contacted Hezbollah and received permission to retrieve her body.
Unbeknown to the soldiers, Amal was still alive but bleeding heavily when her husband and Rahaf arrived. She had been stripped of her gold jewellery.
They carried her to the medical centre in Madaya, which is little more than a small room. A doctor battled to save Amal’s unborn baby. He could not. It took two hours for Amal herself to die; witnesses say she was in agony. She was 36.
PBS FRONTLINE: SYRIA undercover
Undercover with the Syrian revolution
October 11 2011
Hidden in a back room of a half-built, crumbling apartment block in the centre of Duma, a young man groans in pain as a doctor tends to his gunshot injuries. Under a dim, flickering light Dr Khaled inspects the wounds from where a sniper’s bullet sliced through Mohammad’s liver and kidney. He works quickly, using instruments smuggled in from Lebanon, as allies outside keep watch.
Mohammad is in critical condition after security forces opened fire on an anti-government protest. He should be in intensive care. Instead he is here, in one of Syria’s “secret hospitals”.
Dozens of hospitals in Syria have been raided by government forces and those injured at protests are too afraid to go to them, so safe houses, family homes and abandoned buildings have been turned into medical centres where patients are kept hidden.
“The security forces have been hunting protesters down. Some have been shot dead in their hospital beds by Assad’s men,” says Dr Khaled, who claims to have seen many of his patients dragged away, their bodies delivered to their families a few weeks later.
Medical staff have been tortured for treating protesters. “We’re seen as the opposition’s secret weapon. That’s why, if they catch us, they want to kill us,” Dr Khaled says, drawing a line across his throat with his forefinger. He says that ten colleagues have been jailed.
Among his patients are a boy, 15, who was paralysed and left mute after being shot in the head, and a 36-year-old father badly brain damaged when doctors were forbidden to treat him. The restive town of Duma is only a 30-minute drive from Damascus, yet the sound of gunfire has become nearly as frequent as the sound of chanting from the daily protests in its streets. Despite the violence and the killings, protests in Duma and the suburbs of Rif Damashq have not lost momentum. Every night, hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather outside mosques and march to squares where they hold banners and sing anti-regime songs of freedom. The protesters are showered by sweets thrown from windows by locals too afraid to risk sniper fire, but desperate to show their support.
Disciplined activists running a velvet underground
October 11 2011
We worked undercover, posing as tourists, but we had been told that there were informers everywhere.
Foreigners tended to be followed by the security forces, we had been warned.
We filmed using a very small home video camera, and were careful not to do so openly in public, especially during the day.
We were effectively embedded with activists of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, the main underground opposition movement, and we were also helped by Syria’s Youth for Freedom, a grassroots group. We could not have filmed without them The activists are surprisingly well organised in a velvet-smooth set-up. Almost every neighbourhood in nearly every town has a tansiqiyator co-ordinator, responsible for organising protests. Within hours, using Skype and Facebook, they can mobilise thousands of people.
More than 50 activists helped us to operate and travel, using a network of lookouts who communicated using two-way radios.
This was especially important when we visited the restive town of Duma, which is surrounded by military checkpoints that monitor everyone leaving and entering. There was no way we could have got into the town on our own. We travelled with the activists through back roads, usually dirt tracks, evading the soldiers and security officers.
Undercover Syria - Trapped in a Syrian Safehouse
Posted: 14/10/11 01:00
The frantic call from the lookout comes at 6am: a few hundred members of the security forces and the dreaded shabiha militia, dressed in black, wielding guns and clubs, are marching towards the safe house in which we are hiding. They are raiding homes, looking for defected soldiers, opposition activists and anyone who's been at a protest. That means nearly half the town of Madaya. And we happen to be with three of the most wanted men in Syria.
We are in Madaya to see how the activists are operating and organising protests. We had waited two days in Damascus before we could travel the forty minute drive north-west of the city, as the roads are littered with military check points and road blocks. The activists say cars are being searched, and soldiers have been confiscating laptops, cameras and even mobile phones.
But only a few hours after our arrival, the army storms into Madaya. A convoy of trucks carrying thousands of soldiers, and jeeps packed with plain-clothed security officers with AK47s are paying the townsfolk a visit. We are bundled into a car that screeches its way to a safe house where we are told we will hide until government forces withdraw, and it is safe to get out.
For the next three days, Madaya is besieged, and the director Wael Dabbous and I are trapped with Malik, Mohammad and Abu Jafar - their noms de guerres - in two darkened rooms with the windows clamped shut. Over 72 hours, under a thick cloud of cigarette smoke and never raising their voices above a whisper, the men - all in their twenties - share their lives with us. They are members of one of the biggest underground opposition groups, the Syrian Revolution General Commission, or SRGC, and they have been living as fugitives for five months. During the day, they hide in different safe houses, emerging in the darkness of night, and when they travel, it is only ever with a network of lookouts checking the roads ahead, changing cars as they move.
Malik, a law student, was arrested simply for attending a protest, and imprisoned for six weeks in a tiny cell with over 40 others. He was tortured for hours, and lifting his T-shirt, shows us his back, streaked with the dark scars of electric shocks.
"You could go into prison a pro-Assad supporter, but after what they do to you there, you'll come out hating him more than the protesters do," Malik says.
They each know friends and even family members who have been killed at protests, shot dead by government snipers, they say. We crouch round a laptop, viewing hours of footage they've been collecting as evidence of the regime's abuses. Grisly scenes flicker across the screen; bloodied bodies distorted by torture and protesters falling to the ground as security officers with guns pump bullets into crowds.
Slowly, our supplies of food and water start to run out and phone calls from the lookouts reporting the raids become more frequent. Fear begins to creep in. The men barely sleep, jumping at the slightest sound, as the raids get nearer. Abu Jafar's wife calls him sobbing, fearing for her husband's life. The men tell us if they are caught, they are scared they will be killed.
The safe house was chosen partly because it is tucked away from view, down a series of narrow, dusty alleys. But also because it has two back windows that provide perfect escape routes - one to the road below, and one to the rooftops. On the second day, we hear voices from outside, and our worst fears are confirmed. Government forces have surrounded our building, making sure no one can escape an imminent raid. The escape routes are useless. Anyway, the guys think there may be snipers trailing all our windows.
And finally the phone call we are dreading - the forces are heading towards us.
In their desperation, Malik, Abu Jafar and Mohammad squeeze into a tiny, hot cupboard where the water tank is kept and give us strict instructions: don't go near the door (the militia aren't into knocking before entering), hold your British passports up, and start shouting English before they get a chance to beat you. And whatever you do, try to divert their attention from the cupboard.
There is a moment of silence, and then the terrifyingly loud thud of boots thundering down the street. We stand paralysed by the sound of windows being smashed, doors banged down and homes being ransacked. There is screaming and pleading, as men are dragged out of their houses and beaten, groaning for mercy. And then all that is left is children crying and women wailing for the men they may never see again.
Malik, Abu Jafar and Mohammad climb down from the cupboard, limp and exhausted by the terror and adrenalin that is surging through their bodies.
"I think it may be time to move to a nice part of town," Mohammad deadpans.
Abu Jafar immediately starts making calls, trying to find out what happened.
Dozens of men from the town have been hauled away, including five of our neighbours. They weren't even activists, just young men who'd been seen at peaceful demonstrations.
"You don't know how lucky we've been, I really thought they'd finally found us," says Abu Jafar.
The government's forces retreat as quickly as they'd entered. We drive to the outskirts of Madaya for a meeting with over a dozen of the network. As they discuss their next move, a two-way radio crackles with the latest news - the army is coming back. The activists warn us to get out while it is still safe.
As we leave, they huddle around us to say goodbye.
"Please be careful, we're really going to worry about you. Text when you are out," Abu Jafar says, like a protective father, as bursts of gunfire erupt from the nearby mountains. I tell him how ridiculous this sounds to us - we're not the ones being hunted down by the state.
They all smile.
"It's different. We are prepared to die."