Syrian woman survives 700 days of blockade

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Still, she said her family was not harassed by the Sunni rebels for being Christian — it appeared to be because her house was the one with food.

Tragedy came in December. One of her brothers, Anas, who was suffering from cancer, left in a U.N. organized evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the Old City. He died 19 days later.

For the last months, Akhras kept her mind on daily tasks.

Without fuel, her surviving brother Ayman collected firewood. With their supplies down to only tea, oil and spices, Ayman also collected greens — dandelion, chicory and mallow, plants so unnoticed by a city-dweller that Akhras referred to them simply as "grass." Even those became so scarce that Ayman dug for them in a church cemetery.

Akhras' duties now included chopping wood to fuel the subya, a traditional heater-oven. She learnt to soak, boil and spice the salvaged greens.

She lost her appetite on the bitter, monotonous meals. She withered from about 127 pounds (58 kilos) when the blockade began to 75 pounds (34 kilos), shrinking as her space grew smaller.

Akhras said she didn't want to upset herself by looking in the mirror. "I knew I had lost weight. It was like I was on a diet I never wanted."

Only after the siege was over did she finally see her transformation — she saw herself on TV, in footage of the army's entry. "I was smaller than a child!" she exclaimed.

In free hours trapped in her home, Akhras devoured books — the Bible and stories of saints, mostly. Neatly arranged on her coffee table stood a row of large bullet casings.

Her darkest days, she said, came after Anas died and when Ayman went to sleep in another building they own to keep away looters. She was left alone as rebels raided the building again, this time digging upstairs for more medicine and clothing.

"I missed my siblings — we are six girls and six boys. I missed my mother who died at the end of 2011," she said.

Akhras initially didn't know on May 9 that the blockade had been lifted and government troops had entered the neighborhood. She has no radio and did not listen to the news. In a rare outing to the well across her alleyway, she saw a man who told her, "The army is here."

Surprised, Akhras found a soldier and asked him for bread — still unaware of how skeletal she appeared. The soldier bought her two dozen pieces of pita bread.

"I ate a whole piece of bread myself," she said, her eyes shining. "It tasted like sweets."

Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report in Homs, Syria.

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