Southwest Daraa town ‘cut off’ by rain, landslides and an Islamic State affiliate

Bulldozers work to clear a path in the Yarmouk Basin last week. Photo courtesy of Hayt Local Council.

AMMAN: Thousands of residents of an isolated town in southwestern Syria are facing shortages of food and medicine as heavy winter rains flood the sole passage in and out of the town, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

Hayt, home to an estimated 6,000 people, lies in the Yarmouk Basin region of southwestern Daraa province. The town is virtually cut off from the rest of the province by a mixture of borders, frontlines and unforgiving local geography.

The local Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) controls the territory to the north and west of Free Syrian Army (FSA)-held Hayt. The Jordanian border lies immediately to the south, and a series of deep valleys and ravines flanks the town to the east.

The main highway connecting Hayt with the rest of FSA-held Daraa province lies immediately north of the town in territory controlled by JKW, which reportedly does not permit vehicles to pass into or out of Hayt.

JKW has controlled the villages and road north of Hayt since last February, when the IS affiliate launched a surprise offensive on local rebel forces who were battling the regime on an another front in the provincial capital, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Ever since, the only way in and out of Hayt without passing through JKW territory was through the deep Yarmouk Valley to the town’s east. Trucks filled with vegetables, food and fuel traversed the dirt roads that snake around the steep cliffs and deep ravines in the Yarmouk Valley to reach towns on the other side.

Bulldozers work to clear a path in the Yarmouk Basin last week. Photo courtesy of Hayt Local Council.

But in recent weeks, winter rains flooded the routes through the Yarmouk Valley, with landslides and thick mud rendering entire sections of the road impassable by vehicles, residents and the Hayt Local Council told Syria Direct.

As a result, traders in Hayt cannot restock their inventories unless goods are brought in by foot or by donkey. When rain is particularly heavy, as it has been for much of the past two weeks, supplies cannot reach the town in large quantities—leading to a major shortage of food and other perishable goods.

Staples such as vegetables and bread can “disappear entirely” in Hayt during heavy rainfall, 35-year-old local resident Abu Qayba told Syria Direct. He tries to stock up on canned goods before bad weather strikes.

For residents to bring in goods from neighboring towns, they must make a “difficult and terrifying” seven-kilometer long trek on foot to reach the other side of the Yarmouk Valley, Hayt resident Majdi Umran told Syria Direct.

Umran said that ever since roads leading to the east became impassable at the onset of winter, he has made the eastward trek to the town of al-Ajami every few weeks to buy food for his family of four.

Flooding and landslides, as well as stray bullets and shells from nearby clashes between rebels and JKW make the journey dangerous, he said.

“You feel like you’re walking towards death—that disaster awaits you,” added Umran.

‘Unsafe’

On Saturday, FSA brigades and JKW fighters clashed on the outskirts of Hayt, pro-rebel media outlets reported, the latest in a series of frequent skirmishes between rebels and the IS affiliate.

Hayt’s proximity to active frontlines means that some humanitarian organizations do not send aid supplies directly to the isolated town, Hayt Local Council president Abu Ubeida told Syria Direct.

Watad, the sole local aid organization that distributes flour to villages and towns in western Daraa province, refuses to distribute flour in Hayt for security reasons, Abu Ubeida said.

A spokesman for Watad, who asked to remain anonymous, told Syria Direct that the organization’s donors consider Hayt “unsafe” and do not permit flour to be delivered directly into the town. The Watad spokesman declined to elaborate further.

To supply Hayt with bread—a dietary staple for local residents—the local council receives its quota of flour at an undisclosed location east of the Yarmouk Valley, Abu Ubeida told Syria Direct. From there, the local council bakes the bread and transports it into Hayt using trucks in the summer or donkeys in the winter, he said.

Bread shipments usually reach Hayt two or three times a week, but given recent inclement weather, no shipments arrived for more than a week this month, causing bread to run out for several days.

On Sunday, a shipment of two tons bread was brought into Hayt using donkeys, said Abu Ubeida. The local council used donkeys to send to send a further two tons of bread to Hayt on Monday afternoon, he said.

‘I’ll take the risk’

Recent rains and road closures have not only led to food shortages, but also cut off Hayt residents from nearby hospitals.

There is a single, poorly supplied medical center in Hayt, but any cases requiring medicine or treatment beyond the center’s abilities must cross the Yarmouk Valley in order to reach the nearest hospital, located in al-Muzayrib, a town approximately ten kilometers east of Hayt.

When resident Umran’s young son became ill with a high fever and diarrhea earlier this month, his father carried him down the steep path into the valley and back up the other side to reach al-Muzayrib. By the time they returned to Hayt, the father and son had walked more than 14 kilometers, Umran said.

With the inclement weather of recent weeks, evacuating critical cases to nearby hospitals is a “difficult process that takes place in stages,” said local council president Abu Ubeida, with the wounded and ill carried by donkeys and other farm animals part of the way.

Although the local council in Hayt gathered funds and equipment last summer to build a paved gravel road through the Yarmouk Valley, work has stalled in recent days due to the rain, said local council president Abu Ubeida.

Without a paved road, the journey eastward through the valley remains dangerous in the winter, but for local resident Umran, waiting for better weather is not on option.

“I’ll take the risk,”  he said, “Just to find anything that will quiet my small children’s hunger.”