‘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.
Iran’s zealot in chief does Bush a favour
Tony Allen-Mills, New York and Ramita Navai, Tehran
Published: 30 October 2005
Yet the ambassador last week restricted himself to a brief declaration of comparatively modest dismay and conspicuously failed to support Israel’s call for Iran to be expelled from the UN.
Behind the scenes US officials could barely contain their glee. For once President George W Bush’s administration did not need to unleash its rhetorical artillery against the ayatollahs of Iran — the rest of the world, led by Tony Blair, was doing it for them.
The rash public statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, that Israel “must be wiped off the map” aroused international condemnation and left Iran looking isolated.
“If they continue down this path then people are going to believe that they are a real threat to our world security and stability,” said Blair, who also hinted at possible military action against Iran.
Iran’s new leader rejects nuclear pact
Ramita Navai, Tehran, and Tom Walker
Published: 7 August 2005
In a terse address to parliament Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s conservative new president, said that such constraints would constitute a breach of his country’s rights. “We respect international norms but we will not agree to outside diktats that are illegal and violate the rights of Iran,” he said.
“Some governments have been trying to deprive our nation of its inalienable rights and that produces resistance in our people . . . I don’t know why some countries cannot understand that the Iranian people will not succumb to force.”
Britain, France and Germany, which have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear ambitions for two years, have called an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for Tuesday.
Backed by the United States, they are expected to warn Iran against resuming work at the nuclear plant of Isfahan. The restarting of operations there could prompt the IAEA to refer Iran to the United Nations security council for sanctions.
Revolutionary Guard chiefs get into position to take over Iran
Ramita Navai, Tehran
Published: 27 June 2004
The corps — barred by Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the revolution, from straying into politics — may now have its eyes on the presidency. Mohammed Khatami’s second term expires next May.
Ali Larijani, a former Guard commander and former head of state media, is widely believed to be considering running for president. Two other former Guard chiefs have also been tipped as possible candidates.
“A glance at a number of key positions shows this group is increasingly gaining power,” Sharq, a leading reformist newspaper, warned recently.
Indications of the Guard’s political ambitions came in a week in which it flexed its muscles with the arrest and detention of the eight British servicemen who strayed from southern Iraq into the Iranian part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that divides the two countries.
Iranian reformers fight election ban
Ramita Navai, Tehran
Published: 18 January 2004
Reformists were battling this weekend to persuade the Guardian Council, a deeply conservative body that oversees Iran's political system, to drop the ban. Those who will be unable to stand on February 20 include more than 80 members of parliament. MPs who have staged a seven-day sit-in in parliament began a hunger strike yesterday.
Khomeini's granddaughter, Zahra Eshraghi, an official in the interior ministry and prominent reformer, has been barred. Her husband Muhammad Reza Khatami ?? a vice-speaker of parliament and younger bother of President Muhammad Khatami is also banned.
40,000 feared dead in quake
Ramita Navai, Bam
Published: 28 December 2003
In front of him, wrapped in blankets, lay the bodies of his wife Maryam, 28, and their 12- year-old daughter Fatima. He had been waiting 15 hours for someone to take the corpses away. "My two sons are under there," he gasped, pointing to a deep pit next to the rubble.
"They were alive yesterday, but I couldn't get to them. They were in too deep - my neighbours couldn't help because they're all dead and the rescue workers haven't come here yet. I dug and dug. The cold killed them last night."
Deghani's simple two-storey house was in the centre of Bam, celebrated as Iran's 'emerald of the desert' for its improbable fertility in the arid Dasht-e Lut desert from which it rose.
Every building in the district has now disappeared, pulverised last Friday in an earthquake that is feared to have killed as many as 40,000 people. A British visitor is among the missing.
Gone, too, is the Arg-i-Bam citadel which had dominated the skyline. Parts of the fortress had stood for 2,000 years but could not withstand the earthquake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale.