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Embargoed until 0:01 on Friday 21st December 2012

Bombs and freezing conditions drive Syria’s families to the brink

Freezing winter conditions, severe food shortages and rocketing fuel prices are driving Syria’s families to the brink, according to the global campaign organisation, Avaaz.  Testimonies and fresh footage collected from citizen journalists from seven regions across Syria reveal the conflict is devastating people’s lives. Mothers are feeding their babies rice-water, 2.5 million people have fled their homes and are roaming for shelter, and farmers are forced to cut down olive trees for firewood, destroying their livelihoods.  

Ricken Patel, Executive Director of Avaaz, said:
“In Syria, hell is freezing over, bringing even greater misery to the victims of this war. Entire villages are being driven from their homes into the cold, children are dying and heating fuel has run out. The international community must urgently back the new National Coalition’s humanitarian response before families starve or freeze to death.”

As temperatures plummet, and snow begins to fall across parts of the country, villagers are on the move desperately looking for shelter from the violence. The situation for the displaced is dire as villages - such as Nemer - that used to house 7,000 people are now home to as many as 25,000 people.

Bakeries have been bombed and there is an acute shortage of yeast and flour. The result is a chronic food shortage with bread prices quadrupling and people queuing for five hours in parts of the country. In Aleppo, Wissam al Halabi told Avaaz; “We no longer just fear the winter weather but fear starvation.” In Damascus, Osama said; “Yesterday, my wife waited in line for 4 hours but wasn’t able to get bread.”

A film containing fresh footage and testimonies from citizen journalists across Syria about the humanitarian situation has been released by Avaaz and can be seen here:

The cost of fuel has risen by 500% and firewood by over 350% since the violence began. Activists in Syria produced the following survey:

  Pre violence December 2011 December 2012
Diesel (heating fuel) $0.20/Litre $0.30/Litre $1.10 - $1.40/Litre (black market)
Gasoline $0.60/Litre $0.70/Litre $1.30 - $1.50/Litre (black market)
Firewood $49/Tonne $49/Tonne $183/Tonne

The Syrian National Coalition has created a new Aid Coordination Unit (ACU). This unit will work with a network of over 92 local groups inside Syria and has received technical support from donors to help distribute aid to 4 million people - including Alawite and Christians.

Reports say thousands of people have been driven by the violence in Hama into the countryside and are moving from village to village looking for a safe haven. Many are sleeping outside between olive trees, fearing that their houses might be shelled in the night, and others have erected tents in farms. The price of fuel has tripled and people are in dire need of winter clothes and basic food and medical supplies. Manhal, from Hama, said: There is no support from humanitarian organisations, we just survive from donations from residents. We are really concerned about the children and elderly people here.”

In Homs over 400,000 people have been displaced - 1 in 3 of the town’s citizens - and Khalidya neighbourhood has been blockaded for over four months.  With no baby milk available, mothers are forced to feed their babies rice that has been ground into a paste with water and people are even resorting to catching birds to eat. The conflict is forcing wealthy middle class Syrians into new jobs - with gold traders and architects from Homs now working as fuel or vegetable sellers or driving taxis. Such is the economic hardship that Mustafa Kuntar from Jabal al-Zawiyeh reveals: “Some people have begun kidnapping wealthy people in order to negotiate a ransom. Some have begun to steal in order to survive.”

In Hassaka, activist Ahmad Khalil has launched a campaign with Avaaz today calling for the world to respond to the people of Syria said; “words cannot describe our situation -- we’re living under constant shelling, innocent civilians, bakeries and hospitals have become “legitimate” targets for the Syrian forces. We urgently need all the help we can get to save lives in Syria.”

In Jabal Al Zawiyeh, Idlib, farmers are now cutting down pine and olive trees which they have lived off for generations (see footage in the film). They say there is no heating fuel, gas, mazout (diesel) or electricity and firewood now costs $140 per tonne, which would barely cover a month’s supply of heating during the Syrian winter.

In Douma it is the same story, with most commercial shops, clothes shops, libraries and other stores now selling vegetables and food supplies.  The cold is a growing threat to children and the elderly. One activist in Douma said: “What makes matters worse is that windows were broken and walls were destroyed due to the shelling. We have no winter clothes and our need for food, medications and warm clothes is now huge. We try to stay warm using blankets, or burning the broken wood of destroyed doors and windows. But this can affect the children’s health, especially the infants. We are afraid of the cold, we especially fear for the elderly and children.”

In the suburbs of Aleppo,  Avaaz was told many families driven from their homes have fled to Turkey. Those who remain are living in shells of houses with no heating. Wissam al Halabi said: “We no longer just fear the winter weather but fear starvation. Flour mills are lying empty. The regime cleared them out shortly before the rebels gained control over the area. The price of a loaf of bread has risen from 50 cents to almost 3 dollars.”

In Daraa, citizen journalists say there are no humanitarian organisations able to support them. One village, Nemer, which used to have 7,000 inhabitants, is now home to 25,000 people who have fled the destruction in their villages. According to one man, “these people lack everything. Residents in the areas they fled to are trying to help and share food with them. But due to really poor living conditions and rising unemployment the situation is not promising.”

Interviews are available with displaced Syrians, via Skype, in English and Arabic. Interviews are also available with Avaaz spokespeople.

For further information please contact Will Davies in the UK on +44 7855419901, [email protected] or for Arabic media please contact Mohammad Diab in Beirut on +961 3581258 or email [email protected]

Avaaz is a 17-million-person global campaign network that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people shape global decision-making. ("Avaaz" means "voice" or "song" in many languages). Avaaz members live in every nation of the world; our team is spread across 19 countries on 5 continents and operates in 16 languages. Learn about some of Avaaz's latest campaigns here, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.