Patient transfers to Turkey have been halted amid government siege of eastern Aleppo.
Aleppo, Syria – After devastating bombardments in Aleppo following the collapse of the September ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, the Syrian army has launched a major offensive to retake the rebel-held eastern part of the city.
As Russian and Syrian government bombs continue to pummel homes and businesses, residents of east Aleppo must brave extreme violence to go about their daily lives. Meanwhile, food shortages are worsening, with people subsisting on food brought from other rebel-controlled areas, leftover aid and homegrown items.
This is where farmer Salim Atrache saw an opportunity. A new farm led by Atrache in Aleppo’s outskirts is attempting to feed the besieged, one crop at a time.
“After the siege of Aleppo and the prevention of food from entering the city, there was an urgent need for agricultural self-sufficiency,” Atrache told Al Jazeera.
Atrache and his crew are members of an independent volunteer organisation known as the “Red Team” . They farm 37 hectares of land on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, with crops including potatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, aubergine, parsley and spinach, among others.
Atrache believes that supplying east Aleppo with locally grown food is an important step.
“Right now, there’s only a bit of parsley, aubergine and courgettes at high prices in the markets. Some are 10 times more expensive than they are normally,” he noted.
East Aleppo’s food situation took a turn for the worse this summer after government forces surrounded and besieged the area. Despite some rebel advances since then, the area remains cut off from the rest of the country, and many NGOs have been unable to send aid owing to the intense fighting.
“We also had a lack of food for the animals, which forced many owners to feed their crops to them so they wouldn’t die of hunger,” Atrache said. “And a large number of animals were slaughtered for Eid al-Adha, causing prices to rise.”
Although some Aleppo residents have already been raising animals and growing food in the city, what makes Atrache’s project unique is the size of the plot and the intent to provide food for the masses.
“We’ll sell the crops so we can cover our expenses,” explained Abu Brain, who works on the farm. He said that the farm would go out of its way to ensure that none of its crops ended up in the hands of the government, aiming only to provide food for rebel areas.
“We’ll sell to retail centres [within east Aleppo], and avoid as much as possible the regime,” he said, noting that the farm also hopes to sell to hospitals and other local institutions.
Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, a spokeswoman with Mercy Corps, told Al Jazeera that Aleppo’s food situation has grown increasingly bleak.
“The food supply situation in east Aleppo city is extremely concerning. With limited stocks left in the city, there is more reliance on what can be produced locally, but the local supply is woefully inadequate,” she said.
“Across Aleppo governorate, the state of agriculture is a concern. Production has dramatically decreased since the start of the conflict due to displacement and the disruption of markets.”
Compared with other farming projects in the Aleppo area, the Red Team’s plot of several dozen hectares is quite large.
“Most of the other farming projects are no more than one or two dunams [0.1 to 0.2 hectares], so ours is the biggest,” Brain said. The team makes use of large, empty fields in the city’s outskirts, a location that also keeps the farm somewhat sheltered from the high levels of violence in the city.
“There is shelling and clashes not far from where we work,” Atrache said, noting that the farm and other areas were hit by government shelling two weeks ago, but production is continuing.
The project has also encountered other challenges: “The difficulties are securing the proper materials, like mechanical ploughs and hoses for irrigation,” Brain said. Atrache added that while the local city council has provided seeds, “there’s still the problem of not enough fuel or farm hands”.
In the meantime, the farm will continue doing what it can to help alleviate the increasingly desperate conditions in east Aleppo.
“The city is in a very bad situation. The shelling hasn’t slowed for more than a week. If the shelling doesn’t stop, I don’t think it will be possible to repair the city’s main water lines,” Atrache said.
“I think the start has been successful,” he added, noting that the farm has already started harvesting its first batches of aubergine and parsley. “The farm is the first way to cultivate large areas within the city.”