Last updated: 2 March, 2014

Truce allows Syria displaced to visit besieged homes

Displaced residents returned Sunday to their homes near Damascus thanks to a truce in a rebel-held town that Syria’s army besieged more than a year ago, an AFP journalist said.

Among the returnees was a veiled mother of two who said she had come back to Moadamiyet al-Sham, southwest of the capital, for the first time in 14 months.

Speaking near an army checkpoint on the edges of the rebel-controlled area, the 40-year-old, who refused to give her name, said: “We’ve been told everything is calm now, so we’ve decided to return just to see the house.”

Moadamiyet al-Sham was once home to 100,000 people, but fighting, bombing and an army blockade forced tens of thousands to seek shelter elsewhere.

Some 15,000 people still live in the town, and have benefitted from the lull in fighting and the entry of food and other humanitarian supplies since rebels and the regime signed a truce in December.

But without basic services, few of those who fled Moadamiyet al-Sham for other parts of Syria or beyond are willing to go back, even in the long run.

“We will return for good if there’s water and electricity,” said the woman who was accompanied by her two children.

The AFP journalist was not allowed through the army checkpoint into the rebel area, but saw that most of those trickling in were women, children and elderly people.

At the entrance, a banner read: “Residents of Moadamiyet al-Sham want to banish violence and sectarianism, and reinforce national unity.”

A 38-year-old who only identified herself as Maryam said she also wanted to revisit her home town more than a year and a half after she fled due to bombing.

Accompanied by her four children and father, she appeared visibly exhausted by Syria’s three-year war, but had little hope basic services would return to her town.

“Electricity is still cut off inside,” she said.

In December, rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime reached the truce for Moadamiyet al-Sham, after the town had been besieged for more than a year by government forces.

– ‘Children starve to death’ –

The siege led to massive food and medical shortages, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, reported several child deaths as a result of malnutrition.

On Sunday, the AFP journalist saw several pick-up trucks loaded with mattresses, butane gas canisters and boxes full of clothes that had been brought to Moadamiyet al-Sham by the visiting families.

At the checkpoint, the correspondent also saw a 15-year-old boy who said he had been sent out of the town to collect goods.

Balancing three bags on his head, he said: “I’m taking in bread for my family.”

A Damascus businessman, Mohammad Said Fattaleh, said he helped to send in food.

“Every day, seven or eight vehicles loaded with food are sent in by the government,” he said.

Two months before the truce was sealed, some 3,800 residents of Moadamiyet al-Sham were evacuated by the Syrian Red Crescent and the authorities.

The truce was the first of a string of ceasefire agreements reached between rebels and government representatives securing a relative peace in several neighbourhoods around Damascus.

Despite some improvement in the humanitarian situation, activists have said the government is blocking goods such as flour that would allow residents to live self-sufficiently.

“We receive some 1,000 packets of bread a day. But we are unable to bring in flour, or to open bakeries,” said Abu Malek, an activist in the town reached via the Internet.

The UN Security Council last month adopted a resolution calling for humanitarian aid convoys to be allowed access throughout the war-torn country.

Damascus said it is ready to cooperate with the resolution, so long as it respects “state sovereignty”.