Ukraine-Russia War: Breaking News – The New York Times

Huda Khayti endured years of deprivation under siege by Syrian government forces in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The thing she said she remembers the most is the cries of her neighbors’ hungry children in the middle of the night.

When she saw reports of similar sieges in Ukraine, this time at the hands of Syria’s closest ally, Russia, she said it brought back bitter memories for Syrian survivors of attempts by their own government to starve them into submission. Many of them spent years in gridlocked towns where supplies of food, fuel and medicine were dwindling, where people ended up being content to eat grass, leaves and even cats.

“I was waking up to their screams because they wanted to eat,” recalls Ms. Khayti, now a 42-year-old director of a women’s center in Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib. “With every image I see, I come back and experience the moments I had in Ghouta,” she added, her voice starting to shake. “It’s very similar.”

Ghouta, a Damascus suburb besieged from 2013 to 2018, was just one of many rebel-held towns that Syrian government forces and their allies surrounded and cut off from the rest of the country to crush an armed uprising against the president. . Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime that turned into an 11-year civil war. Such sieges allowed the Assad government to regain control of much of the country.

Credit…Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Russian military played a vital role in the Syrian war and supported Mr. al-Assad in several ways, including airstrikes that targeted and killed civilians. The Russian Air Force has repeatedly bombed hospitals in Syria in an effort to crush the last pockets of resistance to the government, according to a New York Times investigation.

The war in Ukraine, in many ways, follows a playbook eerily similar to the war in Syria, with sieges of cities like Mariupol and the targeting of hospitals and schools – all tactics intended to incite the population to surrender quickly. Many Syrians blame Russia for introducing the military tactic of sieges to Syria after notoriously using it against the city of Grozny to crush separatism in Russia’s Chechnya region.

Houaida Muhi Deen, 48, said her family had lived for two years in the town of Madaya, near Damascus, which was then in rebel hands and suffered one of the worst sieges of the war. One day her brother, after much effort to get a few bullets, shot a sparrow to feed his family, she recalls. After cleaning the bird, he moved away for a moment to light a fire to cook it. But her 5-year-old son caught the bird and started eating it raw.

Others in Madaya ate stray cats and wild hedgehogs, she said. His mother spent a week eating nothing but broth.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, said about 1,000 civilians, including more than 400 children, died as a result of sieges during the war, from causes such as starvation and lack of medicine.

Credit…Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

In the northern city of Aleppo, once the commercial capital of Syria, half of the opposition was pinned down by government forces for nearly six months in 2016.

Some people added wood pulp to zaatar, a spice mix made from thyme, to fluff it up and make it last longer, said Ahmad Aziz, a survivor of the Aleppo siege and program manager. at the Big Heart Foundation, one of the aid groups that were in town at the time.

Bakeries ceased to function due to a lack of flour and targeted airstrikes. Painkillers and antibiotics quickly ran out and people relied on herbal remedies used in teas like chamomile, lemon balm and wild thyme to treat sickness and pain. But even these quickly became scarce, and people scoured the networks of friends and neighbors just to find a small amount.

As in Ukraine now, the weather towards the end of the siege of Aleppo was extremely cold. Everything that could be burned was, including doors, sofas, and window frames. At his home, where 11 people lived, Mr Aziz said he once burned an entire suitcase of summer clothes – using a few items of clothing as kindling each day to stay warm.

“I am extremely pained when I see what they are going through and it is the same enemy that was bombarding me and my family,” Aziz said of Ukrainians under Russian onslaught. “We feel for them and say, God be with you.”

To run generators, especially those that powered field hospitals, most besieged areas in Syria turned to burning plastic once regular fuel ran out. But fuel extracted from plastic bottles and containers was particularly toxic, residents said, and often clogged generators.

Credit…Karam al-Masri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Ghouta, Ms Khayti said she spent months in basements and was eventually forced from her home. As desperation set in, long after the locals had eaten all the chickens, they resorted to chicken feed, grinding it up and making it into bread. She recalled that her family would buy a potato – all they could afford – to use as a remedy for stomach ailments.

Even as Ms Khayti closely follows news from Ukraine, she says some footage is too difficult to watch, such as video of the aftermath of a deadly airstrike.

March 7 marked the fourth anniversary of his brother’s death in Ghouta. He and a neighbor had ventured out of the basement where they had taken shelter to fetch water for the families there. Minutes later he was killed in an airstrike, she said. Just days before the region surrendered, Ms Khayti and her surviving family members boarded evacuation buses to the country’s northwest province of Idlib, never to return home .

“We don’t wish that on anyone,” she said, “not even on our enemies.”

In the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, after a generator running on plastic bottled fuel broke down overnight, doctors had to operate on a patient using only four or five small flashlights, the ones at the end of lighters, said Nooraddeen Mokhiber, 34. , who now lives in France.

The Syrian regime has repeatedly deflected blame for the sieges from opposition-held areas, claiming it was the fault of the rebels.

“We didn’t understand what a siege was when it started,” Mr Mokhiber said. “We didn’t think it would last this long and people would be starving so systematically.”

During the first weeks of the three-year siege of Moadamiya, which ended in 2016, some residents tried to flee through the city’s agricultural fields. But they were shot down by regime snipers, he said.

Credit…Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It was a message for us,” he said. “You will die by snipers, bombardments or starvation.”

Attacks on these fields have made them inaccessible. Instead, people started planting tomatoes, lettuce and chard in any patch of soil between houses and along roads, Mokhiber recalls. The people lived on one meal a day and in the later months of the siege, which often consisted of raw, bitter, barely edible olives and any foraged greens.

Once he came home after a day without eating anything. He had been out all day documenting the airstrikes and had asked his mother what to eat.

“’I couldn’t get anything,’” she told him. “Go to the kitchen. There is a plate of olives.

He ate five raw olives, despite their bitter taste which he still remembers today. They made him sick for two days.

It was common for people to faint from malnutrition, he said.

Having lived through a war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions from their homes, Mr. Mokhiber had hoped that their experiences could at least serve as a lesson to the international community.

“The same scenes repeat themselves,” he said. “If you are not going to intervene in Syria, at least learn from it and protect others.”

Credit…Abdulmonam Eassa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut