People of Homs hungry to lead a normal life, says Dutch Jesuit
Rome, 10 February 2014 – Three thousand Syrians trapped in the old city of Homs under a two-year siege and food blockade may finally receive relief after agreements were made on Thursday in the Geneva II talks between government and opposition forces. After two weeks, the negotiations seem to have borne some fruit: an agreement allowing for a "humanitarian pause" in Homs.
Over the weekend, the UN evacuated hundreds of civilians wishing to leave the besieged area of Homs and began its delivery, alongside the Syrian Red Crescent, of humanitarian food and medical aid into Homs. The fragility of this agreement became evident, according to a Syrian Red Crescent official, as sporadic mortar fire and shooting persisted during UN operations over the weekend.
Dutch Jesuit priest, 75-year-old Fr Frans van der Lugt, the Superior of a monastery in Homs, has said he will remain in solidarity with whoever chooses to stay in the city. According to Fr Frans, many inhabitants of the old city are near starvation.
Just days before the agreement was made for a "humanitarian pause", the Jesuit said, "The Syrian people are very patient and are able to live with few little. But what if there is no longer anything available for them? How will they live? We love life; we do not want to drown in a sea of pain and death".
The Jesuit Refugee Service International Director, Peter Balleis SJ, described the development as extremely positive; but deeply regrets the levels of starvation, suffering and death that has already affected those all over Syria.
"The faces of people in the streets are all weak and it seems they are becoming more yellow, they are slender and have lost power", added Fr Frans.
"Shelling and fighting in the old city of Homs is persistent. Previously, all food was brought in via underground tunnels and most people were living off solely lentils and water they could still get from wells, or off food taken from abandoned homes", JRS Middle East Communications Officer, Zerene Haddad, said of the situation leading up to the talks.
Inter-religious dialogue. Having lived in Syria for more than 50 years, Fr Frans is well-known in the Homs area. He founded Al Ard Centre in the countryside of Homs which served as a place for dialogue between people of different religions and walks of life. The centre also catered to people with special needs. In early 2011, the Jesuit Father General, Nicolas Adolfo, visited Al Ard on his trip to Syria. Since the start of the conflict, the Jesuit monastery in Homs has helped families of all faiths.
Fr Frans, who came to Syria in 1966, has worked hard to bring Syrians of different backgrounds together and encourage dialogue between them; his favourite word has always been "forward."
"I don't see Muslims or Christians. I see, above all, human beings. I am the only priest and the only foreigner around, but I don't feel like a foreigner. I'm head of the monastery. How can I leave it, how can I leave? This is impossible".
"If the Syrian people suffer now, I too can share their pain and problems. … To be with them, to give them some consolation, communication and empathy," allows him to "withstand this terrible pain".
Human understanding. Fr Frans continues to meet with people, young and old, who have suffered from malnutrition and persistent hunger while political negotiations a continent away are underway.
He has opened up the doors of the monastery to host Muslim and Christian families whose homes were destroyed, according to JRS staff.
"After food aid is delivered and medical wounds are healed for those currently stuck inside Homs, the situation will remain fragile and long term security in Homs is still not ensured. Not to mention that the old city of Homs is only one of dozens besieged areas in Syria", said Wael Salibi, JRS International staff member.
The entirety of the Syrian crisis needs to be taken into account by world leaders to end the conflict that has killed more than 130,000 people and displaced seven million.
According to Fr Frans, what is really missing from leaders is a human understanding of those still living inside the country.
"They talk and meet in restaurants and hotels, but what we are living here is very different. They speak to us, but they don't live with us. They talk about us, but out of their own interest".
The problem in Homs, he says, is not just about shortages of food and medicine, but also "a hunger to lead a normal life".
"The human being is not just a stomach, but also a heart and wants to see his relatives," Fr Frans concludes.