Syrians besieged by both sides wait, in hunger, for a way out

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As the long-awaited Syrian peace talks began in Geneva last week, the supply of bulgur wheat in besieged Homs all but ran out.

The grain was the last remaining food staple in a dozen opposition-held neighborhoods of Syria's third-largest city, which have been under a government blockade for more than a year. Residents face starvation as deliveries of food and medicine are blocked and people are unable to leave, activists said.

Like other parts of Syria that are under blockade by either government or opposition forces, Homs has experienced a dramatic dwindling of essential supplies. For the thousands who remain in central-city neighborhoods, all that's left to eat are the weeds growing along streets and sidewalks.

"Only the very lucky ones still have bulgur wheat," activist Abu Bilal al-Homsi said this week. "Everyone else lives off of the nonpoisonous plants and cooks them with some spices."

A deal reached last weekend in Geneva to aid the trapped civilians appears to have fallen apart, with people wary that if women and children are allowed to leave Homs, those who remain will be subject to increased government attacks.

United Nations officials had hoped residents could begin leaving Monday, with aid convoys then entering the neighborhoods.

But residents said the relief supplies wouldn't go far toward helping the thousands in need. The only solution, they said, is for the government to lift the blockade and establish a humanitarian corridor.

Negotiations have continued and the World Food Program is waiting for word from the U.N., program spokeswoman Dina El-Kassaby said. Trucks packed with food and products to treat malnutrition are ready to go when clearance is given, she said.

"The only information that I have is, access hasn't been granted, so the rations haven't moved," she said.

The Homs issue appeared to shift the focus of the peace talks from the larger challenge of ending the nearly 3-year-old conflict. No substantive results emerged from the initial round of talks by the time they ended Friday, with each side blaming the other. A second round has been proposed for Feb. 10.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent called this week for separating "the humanitarian file from the political file."

"The ultimate solution that works all over Syria and not just Homs is to push all the parties to the conflict to announce their commitment to provide safe and unhindered access for aid and medical convoys to all places in Syria," the group said in a statement.

The U.N. estimates that about 250,000 people in Syria are living under siege.

"I mean, if until now they haven't been able to deliver a few vehicles of humanitarian aid, how are they going to find a solution to (President) Bashar (Assad) and his gang?" said Abu Bisaam, a resident of a blockaded Homs district.

For months, Homs residents have scavenged through the homes of those who have fled the city, living off rice or olives they find.

Muhammad Abu Hamza, a rebel in the Old City, released a short film about the humanitarian situation in besieged neighborhoods on the occasion of the Geneva talks. In one scene, an opposition fighter scoops up handfuls of bulgur from the floor of a damaged storefront and sifts through it, picking out stones and pieces of glass.

"The goal of the film was to relay our message in a different way so the picture of what is happening is clear," Abu Hamza said.

Children are drinking broth made from the leaves of lemon trees to treat diarrhea, the result of a diet consisting of only olives, said Omar al-Tilawi, a resident of Bab Sbaa.

At least 15 people have died of starvation, said al-Homsi, and a man recently died from a leg injury because of a lack of medicine. Ten people have died after eating poisonous plants, he said, and hundreds more as a result of the continued aerial bombardment.

"There is nothing left here that supports daily living," he said. "The infrastructure is demolished and there is no water or electricity. It is as if we live in the Stone Age."

On Thursday, the U.N. distributed more than 1,000 food parcels to the besieged Yarmouk camp in Damascus, home to Palestinian refugees and Syrians. Activists in the camp have reported dozens of starvation deaths. Aid was again distributed there Friday.