02/05/2014, 00.00
SYRIA
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Jesuit priest says people in Homs are starving

by Paul Dakiki
Despite the war, Fr Frans Van der Lugt never left Homs. Attacked by both regime and rebel forces, the Jesuit monastery where he lives has been open to everyone, Christian or Muslim. He is the last priest left with the city's last 66 faithful. After more than a year ago of siege, residents are going mad and dying. Both regime and rebels must build trust and work together.

Damascus (AsiaNews) - People are dying of hunger in the Old City of Homs, said Fr Frans van der Lugt, a 75-year-old priest, in a plea to the international community.

Last week, just as the peace talks on Syria (Geneva II) discussed possible humanitarian corridors in some areas of the country (including Homs), a video was posted online in which the priest, sitting in front the altar of his church, called on the world to remember that Syrians are suffering and that several are going "mad with hunger."

Only a few thousand people still live in the old city, which has been under rebel control since June 2012. Since then, government forces have prevented supplies from coming into the area with snipers making it very difficult for people to move in the streets.

Because the video came from a rebel-held area, some have dismissed it as propaganda. However, what Fr Van der Lugt says goes beyond partisanship.

Born on 10 April 1938 in the Netherlands, Father Frans joined the Society of Jesus on 7 September 1959 and was ordained on 29 May 1971.

A member of the Jesuit Province of the Near East, he has lived in Syria since 1966, working especially with young people. At present, he has been serving as the Episcopal vicar (not the bishop) in Homs, working with local Catholics who follow the Latin rite.

Before the war, the Old City used to be home to 60,000 Christians. "Now I find myself alone with only 66 other Christians," Father Frans lamented.

Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, he has not left the Jesuit monastery, even though both government forces and the opposition have attacked it.

Despite the precarious and dangerous situation, he has welcomed everyone, Muslims and Christians, pro-regime and rebels. Dozens of people have stayed with him for months on end.

As hunger took hold of the city over the past year and more, he has always been able to provide food to everyone. In recent weeks though, he has not had even have a piece of bread to give. Several people have already died so far from hunger.

"Muslims and Christians," the priest said, "are living under difficult and painful conditions" with some children starving or dying from lack of medicine, he said.

"We suffer greatly but most of all from hunger," he explained. Yet, "We love life and we don't want to die or to drown in an ocean of death and suffering".

In a bitter reference to the international mobilisation against Syria's chemical weapons and last week's failure in Geneva to secure humanitarian corridors in Homs, a yellow sign near the altar could be seen in the video, saying: "Dying of hunger is more painful than from chemical weapons".

Although the Old City of Homs was at the centre of discussions between the Syrian regime and opposition at peace talks in Geneva last week, the two sides failed to reach a deal. Whilst the regime offered women and children a safe passage out of the area, it also insisted that men register their names before leaving the city.

Fearing retaliation, the rebels refused, whilst the women were against leaving their husbands. Thus, the siege continues with its load of hunger and madness.

Fr Van der Lugt, who is also a trained psychotherapist, said that, already suffering extreme stress from the war, hunger has been "turning people insane".

"Some people are now suffering from mental illness; neurosis, panic attacks, psychotic and schizophrenic episodes and paranoia," he said.

In interviews with the Telegraph and the Orient le Jour, Fr Frans could not hide a certain scepticism about peace talks, which are expected to resume next week.

In his view, the delegations staying at the great hotels of Montreux and Geneva "talk about us, but they don't live with us. They should talk about what we think and not about what is good for them."

For the clergyman, the regime and the rebels must build mutual trust. "If there is trust, then the negotiations will be productive. If there isn't, they won't succeed whether they're held in Geneva, Paris, Honolulu or London," he explained.

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