A garden grows amid the daily dangers of a siege in Syria

In the desperate Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, growing food is matter of life or death

A rooftop garden in Yalda, a neighborhood bordering Yarmouk on the southeastern outskirts of Damascus. Yarmouk has endured a siege since 2012, and one key to survival has been for residents to grow their own food.
Lens Young Yeldani

In a dark kitchen, by the flickering light of a single safety candle, two men bundled in hats and jackets against the cold put on an impromptu video satire: live from Yarmouk, at the southernmost edge of Damascus, a cooking show for people under siege.

“This is the new dish in the camp of Yarmouk. It hasn’t even hit the market yet,” said the man on the right, 40-year-old Firas Naji, the blunt and humorous host.

He picked up a foot-long paddle of sobara, Arabic for prickly pear cactus. Holding it carefully by one end to avoid thorns, he displayed first one side and then the other for the camera.

“In the U.S., they get Kentucky [Fried Chicken], hot dogs. In Italy, spaghetti and pizza,” he said, his raspy voice caressing the names of unattainable foods. “Here in Yarmouk, we get sobara.

“It’s not enough we have checkpoints in the streets and shelling,” he added, laying the cactus back on the counter with a sad laugh. “Even our cooking has thorns.”

When the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) swept in and seized control of Yarmouk last month, they were fighting people who had been under siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for more than two years. Since December 2012, the 18,000 people trapped in this neighborhood have been living with hardly any electricity or fuel. They have had no running water since September 2014. They had so little food that at one point a Muslim cleric in Yarmouk issued a ruling allowing people to eat the flesh of donkeys, dogs and cats.

But one thing they have always had in Yarmouk, which was originally a camp for displaced Palestinians, is sabr. Roughly translated, sabr is the patience and perseverance that gives the prickly pear cactus its Arabic name. For Palestinians, the sobara — thorny, tough, often planted at the borders of vegetable gardens as a living fence — is a symbol of resilience.

Under siege by the regime and now by insurgents, Yarmouk’s forgotten civilians have been fighting the medieval weapon of hunger with creativity, humor and the ultimate grass-roots resistance strategy: gardens.

A matter of life and death

Yarmouk is one of a handful of neighborhoods, villages and towns being held under siege in the four-year Syrian conflict. Across the country, civilians under siege have been devising creative survival strategies for feeding themselves and their neighbors. Many of them are based on age-old agrarian practices like foraging, communal kitchens and community gardens. In Yarmouk a new generation of urban gardeners has defied bullets and artillery fire to cultivate as many as seven large community plots and dozens of smaller kitchen gardens.

“Most of the people in Yarmouk do gardening today,” said Abdallah al-Khateeb, a 25-year-old Yarmouk native and student-turned-activist-turned-gardener, over Skype, in an interview conducted before the ISIL takeover. “Most of them have made little farms inside their houses or close to their homes.”

Lettuce growing in Damascus. Across Syria, citizens under siege have turned to gardens to help them survive.
Lens Young Yeldani

Between buildings, in abandoned lots and on rooftops, the siege gardeners of Yarmouk have been cultivating everything from eggplants to mulukhiyeh, a jute plant whose glossy leaves make a rich green stew. Come harvest time, they bag the produce into 1-kilo portions, hang the bags on the handlebars of beat-up bicycles and pedal around the camp distributing the food to their neighbors. They focus on those most in danger of starving: children, poor people and the elderly.

In besieged Yarmouk, gardening is a matter of life or death. In June 2014, a government shell killed three men just outside one of the neighborhood gardens. At least two people have been shot and killed by snipers while foraging for wild greens. And anyone providing food, water or medical care is especially at risk of being assassinated, kidnapped by armed groups or disappeared by the government. In the first three months of 2015, as fighters from ISIL and Jahbat Al-Nusra were infiltrating the camp and preparing to take over, at least 10 nonviolent activists were killed.

Naji, the playful host of the mock cooking show and a longtime community activist, was one of them.

When the siege began, Khateeb and others formed the Basmeh Social Foundation, a community-based relief group in Yarmouk. They organized clown shows and play groups for children, a community garden, a water distribution project and a series of videos showing life under siege — including the satirical cooking show. Naji was a mentor to the younger activists at first and took a more active role as many of them were arrested or killed. On Feb. 23, he was found dead in his house. He had been shot execution-style in the head.

Naji’s killers have not been identified. But his death fits ISIL’s pattern of eliminating homegrown community leaders whose popularity might challenge their control. “It’s not just anybody who can mobilize hungry people,” says Salim Salamah, a Yarmouk native and spokesman for the Palestinian League for Human Rights. “Mobilizing the 18,000 people inside Yarmouk was possible for only a few people. And those were the people who were killed.”

Naji and Khateeb were close friends; Khateeb is the one who recorded the satirical cooking show. On March 8, two weeks after Naji’s murder, a group of armed men surrounded Khateeb as he was leaving his house and tried to force him into a car. He was able to escape. But the assassinations continued.

Naji’s friends and colleagues believe he was killed because his work threatened the main power brokers inside the camp: the black-marketeers who profit because the siege has sent food prices into the stratosphere, the pro-regime militias and the armed groups such as ISIL that are increasingly extending control over the population.

“Firas Naji was killed because he offered people a choice of dignity, of food sovereignty,” says Raji Abdulsalam, a human rights defender with the Palestinian Human Rights Organization, a non-partisan group that monitors conditions in Palestinian camps. “And many people didn’t like that. I’m talking about both extremists and the regime.”

A deal for seeds

The Syrian government established Yarmouk in 1957 as a camp for Palestinian refugees. But over the years, it took in more and more Syrians, especially in the mid-2000s, as drought and government neglect ravaged the farming areas in the country’s northeast. By 2011, it had become a dense, vibrant neighborhood where several hundreds of thousands of people were packed into four-fifths of a square mile. Fewer than a third of them were Palestinian.

When the rebellion against Assad began, in March 2011, displaced Syrians flooded into Yarmouk. Opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army began to clash with local pro-regime militias. On Dec. 16, 2012, the government sent Mig fighter jets to bomb a mosque, a hospital and four schools where displaced people had sought shelter.

From then on, the siege tightened every day. The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo. They would open bags of bread and count the pieces to make sure there were no more than 10.

A garden in Babbila, a neighborhood near Yarmouk.
Lens Young Yeldani

“You can say that this was something psychological,” says Osama Jafra, the alias of an organizer for the Jafra Foundation, a community development group that started several of Yarmouk’s large communal gardens.

About six months into the siege, around the end of June 2013, a neighbor hailed Jafra on the street. Since Jafra worked for a charity group, the man asked, could he get him money to buy seeds?

“Why?” Jafra asked.

“Come. I’ll show you,” the man replied.

He took Jafra to one of the schools that warplanes had bombed six months earlier. In the abandoned courtyard, a playground was alive with flowers and greenery. With seeds, they could transform it into a vegetable garden.

Jafra made a deal with his neighbor: I’ll get you $50 for seeds if you agree to share them. The next day, Jafra recruited staffers and volunteers to cleaned up the camp to cultivate the abandoned play area. Neighbors saw what they were doing and began to help. Even children pitched in. They finished in four hours.

“When the people and the children started to work with us, everybody was so happy,” says Jafra. They planted dandelions, parsley, tomatoes, eggplants and lentils. They called it the Palestine Garden.

And so a transformation began among the urban inhabitants of Yarmouk. They discovered the secrets of farming, like the best time to water the garden — at night, so the precious water would not evaporate. They learned how certain plants, like fava beans, can renew exhausted soil. They found seeds and farming skills among the rural farmers who had fled to Yarmouk when drought and later war engulfed the Syrian countryside.

The Syrian regime allowed only certain approved seeds in the country. But with the limited water and fertilizer under the siege, the hybrid commercial seeds were useless. Enter the international food sovereignty movement, a worldwide confederation of farmers, food producers and land rights activists. Farmers from over half a dozen countries donated organic, open-pollinated seeds, which were then smuggled, at considerable risk, into Yarmouk.

Desperation, then a harvest

A few weeks after Jafra and his friends planted the Palestine Garden, on July 21, 2013, the regime closed the main checkpoint into Yarmouk for good. The siege was total: Nobody could leave, and nothing could enter except what the soldiers permitted. The checkpoint is closed to this day.

Over the next six months, the price of everything went up. A single radish reached $1.50 at one point; a kilo of rice was $100. “All of us, even me, we were living on two or three spoonfuls a day of whatever we had — rice, lentils,” says Jafra.

But even on the hungriest days, they kept gardening. They figured out how to charge their laptops by hooking them up to tractor batteries. Whenever they could get precious electricity and even more precious hacked Internet, they tried to watch YouTube videos on urban farming. “Everyone was laughing big time, saying ‘What the fuck are those kids doing?’” says Abdulsalam. “Everyone was laughing at them until maybe the third month, when they started to harvest some of the quick things, like lettuce. And little by little, people started to believe that this makes a difference.”

‘You don’t starve to death right away. It takes about three weeks.’

Osama Jafra

alias for an activist in Yarmouk

Hungry people raided the Palestine Garden, picking the vegetables before they were ready and ruining the fall harvest. The same thing happened in the Basmeh garden. “They didn’t give the watermelon the chance to say, ‘I am a watermelon,’” one of the newfound farmers joked, in another video from last summer. “At that moment, they had already stolen it.”

At one point, out of desperation, Khateeb and his friends started to cultivate cactus pads, which grow and spread quickly. They had a sharp, tannic taste and were full of tiny, inedible fibers like the choke of an artichoke. They tried to find creative ways of cooking cactus to make it appetizing. “I tried to use my artistic skills,” says Khateeb, laughing. “But to be honest, it was bad. Reeeeeally, really bad.”

That winter, according to estimates from people in Yarmouk, over 150 people died from a lethal combination of malnutrition and denial of medical care. “You don’t starve to death right away,” says Jafra. “It takes about three weeks. If you get medical care during that time, you can stop the process.” The regime was not — and still is not — allowing medical supplies or aid into the camp.

Last spring, after a brief burst of international attention to the siege, the regime started letting the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) bring in a limited number of food baskets with rice, lentils, sugar and other kitchen staples, as well as food supplements and multivitamins for infants. Ideally, every family would get one or two baskets a month — barely enough to stay alive. But even that subsistence ration could disappear at any time. “It depends on the situation but more on the mood of the regime,” says Khateeb. The government arrested many of the aid workers, activists and civilians who showed up to help distribute the food baskets — a not-so-subtle reminder of who controls the food supply.

On Dec. 6, 2014, as soon as the world’s attention had shifted elsewhere, the government and armed groups cut off the trickle of aid. Yarmouk Residents would not get a single food basket for the next three months. By early winter, according to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, infants were suffering from diseases linked to severe malnutrition, including anemia, rickets and kwashiorkor. Jaundice was common, according to sources in the camp. At least four people starved to death.

But this winter, Yarmouk’s second under total siege, was different. This time, people had vegetables they had grown themselves — Swiss chard, spinach, fava beans and other hardy cold-weather plants.

“This is why the gardens are so important,” says Joudieh Abed, the alias of a civil society activist who works with urban gardening projects across the Middle East. “In a way, this has broken the siege twice. They suddenly had food, although the regime wasn’t allowing food in, and the regime strategy of starve or surrender didn’t work out.”

Human rights observers believe even more people would have died this winter if not for the gardeners. “The number of mortalities was reduced because of these kids,” said Abdulsalam in early March, three months after the food baskets were completely cut off. “It’s still as bad as last November, but people are not dying.”

A bumper crop

Sieges are as old as war itself. But today they are also a war crime: In 1977, the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions prohibited the starvation of civilian populations as a method of warfare. Despite this, the Syrian regime has been using siege tactics throughout the country since the conflict began, systematically cutting off food, water and medical care from civilians and fighters alike. Groups like ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra have adopted the tactic as well.

“It’s a starvation policy, and I think it’s a very intentional policy,” says Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “The regime quickly realized that instead of engaging in costly street battles to regain territory, it would be easier to encircle an area and starve them into submission.”

Bombed-out buildings in Yarmouk, which began as a camp for Palestinian refugees and has seen an influx of displaced Syrians.
AFP / Getty Images

Assad has consistently denied using siege tactics against civilians. In February the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen confronted Assad with reports by the World Health Organization and the United Nations that his government was blocking humanitarian aid to civilians. Assad dismissed the reports as “propaganda against Syria” and asked sarcastically how the regime could prevent food from entering rebel-held areas if the people inside had access to arms.

In February 2014, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on all parties to end the sieges and allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians. But the sieges have only gotten worse. Today, according to U.N. estimates, close to half a million people are under siege in Syria: 167,500 by the government; 254,500 by armed groups, mostly ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra; and the approximately 18,000 people in Yarmouk, who are under siege by both.

ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra invaded the camp on April 1. ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra spent weeks battling Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis, an anti-government militia affiliated with Hamas. They beheaded at least four fighters, according to sources in the camp. They issued death threats against local activists, including Khateeb.

They also seized the fuel and generators that kept the gardens going. Ever since the government water shut off, in September 2014, the gardeners had relied on generators to pump water from wells. Even if it was safe to go out, the gardeners had no way to water the plants.

Luckily, this spring was a rainy one. The Basmeh garden had a bumper crop of fava beans. As soon as it was safe, people went to the garden, picked the beans and distributed them as they have been doing for the past year and half. For many, it was their only source of food. “The humanitarian situation did not change that much,” says Sarhan, the alias of a civil society activist from Yarmouk who is now living in exile. “Before, UNRWA could bring food baskets from a certain spot. Now that certain spot has moved. But barrel bombing wasn’t there before.”

During the April fighting, about 4,000 people were able to escape Yarmouk and flee to the nearby neighborhoods of Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahem. These areas have also been under siege for many months, though not as absolutely as Yarmouk. Food there is also scarce and very expensive. Many of the people in these neighborhoods are from the Syrian countryside and are growing gardens.

Khateeb was among those who managed to leave. After surviving the siege, the March kidnapping attempt and the ISIL invasion, he is already planning another garden.

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Food, ISIL, Syria's War

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