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Survival in a siege: Leaves become food, faith becomes strength

By Frederik Pleitgen, CNN
May 13, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As a truce in Homs holds, life comes back to the Old Town area
  • But for a brother and sister, life never left despite two years of shelling and scarcity
  • Zeinat and Ayman Akhras ate leaves from trees in a graveyard to stay alive
  • "You have no idea when you will be able to get out ... sometimes we just cried"

Editor's note: CNN International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen has reported from inside Syria numerous times during the conflict.

Homs, Syria (CNN) -- It has been nearly a week since a truce between the Syrian government and rebel groups took effect in Homs, and as opposition fighters have left the Old Town area of the city, thousands of displaced residents have come back.

The streets of the district are packed with people carrying belongings out of the district or moving possessions in to return to their homes.

The people are usually busy and rarely joke or smile, but in the middle of this scene there was a tiny, thin and frail-looking woman who stood out. Her name is Zeinat Akhras and a group of people had gathered around her, hugging and kissing her, almost crying with joy.

Zeinat is one of fewer than 30 civilians known to have lived through the entire siege of Homs -- more than two years of constant shelling, sniper fire and starvation.

"I am 49 years old and I weigh only 34 kilos (about 75 pounds)," Zeinat told me when I met her at a damaged church in Old Homs.

Residents return to the Old City of Homs, Syria, on Monday, May 12, 2014. A truce between the Syrian government and rebel forces in the strategic and symbolic city has gone into effect, allowing many of its residents to come home for the first time in nearly two years. Homs has experienced some of the worst of the violence in a bloody civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead and driven millions of people from their homes across the country. Residents return to the Old City of Homs, Syria, on Monday, May 12, 2014. A truce between the Syrian government and rebel forces in the strategic and symbolic city has gone into effect, allowing many of its residents to come home for the first time in nearly two years. Homs has experienced some of the worst of the violence in a bloody civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead and driven millions of people from their homes across the country.
Syrians return to Homs
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Photos: Syrians return to Homs Photos: Syrians return to Homs
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"The shelling was terrible, it was going on almost all the time. I got wounded on my arm and my shoulder once."

Zeinat survived the siege with her brother Ayman. They remained in a little apartment, hoping it wouldn't be flattened by an artillery shell, or that Islamist rebels would not kill the two Christians, as Christians are often perceived by the opposition to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"They often accused me of supporting the government," Ayman Akhras said, sitting in the apartment with his sister Zeinat.

"I told them -- who am I supposed to support when I am stuck in here? I am not supporting anyone."

Ayman and Zeinat devoted all of their energy to staying alive. Ayman ventured out into the dangerous streets almost every day, looking for material to burn in the little stove they have in the apartment.

"I only got the wood that the rebels left behind after they cut down the trees. I also never burned any furniture, all I used were broken window frames and doors after they were blown out by the shelling."

The windows in the little apartment the brother and sister occupied were quickly blown out as well, leaving them cold on top of being hungry and scared of the war that was being fought around them.

Rebels captured the old town of Homs in 2011. The Syrian military later started a massive push to win the territory back using heavy weapons including artillery in the urban area.

Then government forces encircled the rebels and laid siege to the district, preventing food and medical supplies from getting in. The West accuses the al-Assad regime of using starvation as a weapon in the civil war. The United Nations says both sides are guilty of keeping supplies from reaching besieged places, but that the government's use of starvation is more widespread.

Syrian rebels bomb Aleppo hotel
Rebels evacuated from Old City of Homs

Zeinat and Ayman soon found their supplies running out as the siege raged on.

"In the beginning we had some canned foods, but those quickly ran out," Ayman said.

"Then the rebels came and raided our apartment. They took a lot of the dry foods we had left like flour, bulgur and rice. They came more than 30 times and broke in and held guns to our face. It is an awful feeling to be sleeping at night and then to wake up with a gun to your head."

When the last of the food was gone, Ayman was forced to go out and search for grass and leaves to eat. He found the leaves that saved their lives on a tree in a graveyard, of all places.

"They taste the best. The other ones were very bitter," he said.

"We ate them for breakfast, dinner and for lunch every day."

Zeinat showed me a tiny bowl, which was the serving size they allowed themselves for each meal.

"We cut them up and made a stew with them for lunch," she said.

"In the mornings we would eat them fresh with some oil we had left, and in the evenings we tried to fry them on the stove if we had wood. These leaves saved our lives."

The brother and sister say it was also their faith that helped them through the two years of confinement, violence and hunger. Both are devout Orthodox Christians.

"There were some nights that we were just sad," Ayman said.

"When you just think that you have not seen your family in such a long time, that you might never see them again and that you have no idea when you will be able to get out of here. In those times, sometimes we just cried."

But in the end they made it through more than 700 days of the siege of Old Homs.

Zeinat is still weak and cannot stand for an extended period of time. She spends most of the time on the couch in the apartment reading books or resting. Ayman is stronger, but his clothes look baggy on him after he lost so much weight due to the starvation.

But both Ayman and Zeinat are survivors.

They say the hardship they have endured might have made them thin and frail, but it has made their spirits stronger than ever, and they are looking to the future with optimism.

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