Living in near desolation, Akram and his wife survive by raising livestock
‘I have nothing to eat; I have no clean water to drink’
LAHORE: An elderly Pakistani couple stranded in the besieged Syrian town of East Ghouta—a suburb of Damascus—is desperately calling on the Pakistan government and its embassy in the Syrian capital to save them from starving to death.
Muhammad Fadel Akram, 72, and his 62-year-old wife, Sugran Bibi, are among the many people stranded in the rebel-held area near Syria’s capital, which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Tuesday warned has reached “critical point.”
In September, Bashar al-Assad’s government banned both commercial food sales and UN aid for East Ghouta, having already banned fuel and medicine. As a result, child malnutrition is now at sub-Saharan African levels.
Scores of civilians have been killed or injured in the Eastern Ghouta in the past month alone and the ICRC says that life is slowly becoming “impossible” in the area. At least 500 people are waiting to be evacuated for life-saving medical care.
Only a few kilometres away from Pakistan’s embassy in Syria, the couple says that they have attempted to contact the embassy and the government repeatedly over the years, but to no avail. Reports of the couple’s plight had first come to the fore as part of a story on other foreign nationals struggling to make it through the war and its consequences in East Ghouta since 2011, including a Turkish and Sudanese family.
Sudanese, Turkish and Pakistani families participated in the siege, shelling and death of Al-Gouta after the Bashar gang prevented them from leaving Al-Ghouta and their nationalities did not accompany their governments to remove them so far through their embassies in Damascus pic.twitter.com/XUNwDxyMqN
— قصي نور (@QUSAY_NOOR_) December 13, 2017
Pakistan Today spoke to Muhammad Akram through Syrian journalist and photographer Qusay Noor—also in East Ghouta—who said, “Their situation is difficult and they need immediate help.”
The story that Muhammad Akram told Pakistan Today was a harrowing tale of fighting starvation, constant shelling, complete uncertainty and death.
“What story should I tell you people?” Akram asked himself in a voice message sent through WhatsApp. “I have nothing to eat. I have no clean water to drink. My wife is sick; she needs medicine, yet there is nowhere we can get any,” he said.
Voice shaking with regret, Akram said that he came to Syria in 1973 searching for a livelihood. One thing led to another and he ended up staying.
“I was young and did not know better. I forgot my parents and my family; [Syria] became my home. This is where I married and raised my children, but now they are all gone. One was killed right here in East Ghouta, and now I am alone.”
Living in near desolation, Akram and his wife survive by raising livestock. They occupy the same ruined room that their cattle sleep in.
“I have contacted the Pakistani embassy so many times. Every time they snub me. I have been contacting them since the war broke out, but I get no response. Now, the situation is so bad that I feel there is no chance of me getting out.”
“They don’t even pretend to treat us with respect anymore,” he went on to say. “The last time I asked them for help, they told me to get lost and go back to Pakistan if I could. How can I go back to Pakistan with no help?”
Pakistan Today also contacted the Pakistan embassy in Syria. However, much as Akram had described them, they were unresponsive. Multiple emails to the embassy were in vain, and repeated attempts at phoning them also resulted in naught.
Moreover, the Foreign Office’s grievance cell, as well as the Middle East desk in Pakistan, did not respond to any of Pakistan Today’s correspondence attempts, despite having received them.
At present, time is running out for the people of East Ghouta and subsequently for Muhammad Akram and his wife. Although the area has been part of a Russian-backed “de-escalation deal” since May, aid deliveries have not only been infrequent but also insufficient for 400,000 residents—who face a critical shortage of food, medicine and fuel.
The options are, of course, limited. As Syrian American writer Malak Chabkoun explained, “Assad continues to behave like this because no power—not even the UN—is willing to stand up to him.”
“He is getting away with his crimes because of the war on terror narrative,” she told Pakistan Today.
Pakistan Today also contacted Kenan Rahmani, a Syrian American political and human rights activist and a member of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).
Rahmani, who is also the Advocacy Campaigner at The Syria Campaign, said, “The Assad regime uses a ‘starve or surrender’ strategy to forcibly starve civilians in opposition-held areas in order to compel them to surrender to the regime.”
He also explained that “the Assad regime, unfortunately, cannot be pressured to allow the aid to reach those civilians through diplomatic means because any resolution at the UN Security Council is vetoed by Russia. Western governments have failed to exert sufficient pressure through other means to ensure humanitarian access.”
Indeed, with even the UN barred from entering the area and no chance for any humanitarian effort, rescuing the couple would be a tough ask for anyone.
Yet the response of Pakistani officials has been reflective of the state’s overall response to the war in Syria—which has been nothing.
The couple, on the other hand, is hoping against hope that at least some financial help can be arranged for them, just enough to survive and make it to Damascus proper.
“I don’t want to beg, but if anyone can get us enough money for passage to Damascus, then we can make it back home. That is all that we ask, just to come back home and live the rest of our lives away from these bombs,” said Muhammad Akram.
“After all,” Akram argues in one of his voice clips, “where else can I go but my home?”