The residents of the besieged Syrian town of Madaya say they are again facing starvation as meagre supplies delivered last month are already running out. Meanwhile, the United Nations has been accused of severely underestimating the number of people suffering under blockades around the country.
More than one million Syrian civilians are living in besieged towns and villages, according to aid organisation Siege Watch, more than double the number listed in UN data.
That number could rise sharply if government troops advancing on Aleppo cut off the city's last supply line, with the UN warning on Tuesday that up to 300,000 civilians could be stranded in the city that was once Syria's biggest urban centre.
"If the government of Syria and allies sever the last remaining flight route out of eastern Aleppo city, it would leave up to 300,000 people still residing in the city cut off from humanitarian aid unless cross-line access could be negotiated," the UN said in an emergency bulletin on the situation in Aleppo.
A major aid group working in the area told the Guardian that an even greater number of people – about 400,000 – were at risk. The UN warned that up to 150,000 refugees may also flee from Aleppo towards the border with Turkey, joining tens of thousands already living there in squalid camps.
‘Starve or surrender’
The use of “starve or surrender” tactics by the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad came under increased scrutiny after photos and videos emerged last month of the emaciated, desperate children of Madaya, where dozens of people are thought to have starved to death before an aid convoy was let through.
Now those limited supplies are almost gone. “Today I ate grass to make the aid last longer,” said a young teacher and activist in Madaya, who was one of the first to alert the world to the extreme deprivation in the former resort town. “Some families have already run out. In 10 days most of us will have nothing to eat.”
The January shipment came too late to help some of the weakest people, and now the town is bracing itself for more losses. It is surrounded by minefields and snipers who are said to have killed several of the most desperate inhabitants as they tried to slip away.
“Since the aid entered Madaya 16 men and women have died and four children,” said the teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against family members in government-controlled areas.
The suffering is being repeated across Syria, Siege Watch said, adding the UN was failing to register more than half of the blockades and citing Madaya as one of the forgotten sieges.
"The scale of the crisis of besieged areas in Syria is far worse than the UN . . . has acknowledged," said the report by Siege Watch, an initiative organised by Dutch charity PAX and US non-profit research group the Syria Institute.
“New data gathered by Siege Watch shows that there are well over a million Syrians under siege . . . The scope and severity of sieges across Syria continues to grow,” the report said, adding that such deliberate starvation was a war crime.
The majority of people were under siege from government forces, with many also blockaded by Islamic State fighters, the report said. In the city of Deir Ezzor, Islamic State, also known as Isis, had more than 200,000 people under siege, but government forces were complicit in the suffering because they controlled the city’s airport and had refused to allow aid flights to bring supplies for civilians, Siege Watch said.
“While the UN reporting describes Deir Ezzor as being besieged by Isis, residents living there feel that they are besieged by both Isis and the Syrian military,” the group said. “The Syrian government’s actions towards the besieged neighbourhoods support this claim.”
Madaya was not listed as under blockade in a year-end UN report on the situation in Syria, even though UN officials had known about the extent of suffering there for months. The UN now considers Madaya besieged and helped to organise the aid convoy in January.
The Damascus suburb of Moadamiya, where Siege Watch estimates that about 44,000 people are under siege, did not appear on the UN list in December either. A residents’ committee earlier this month demanded UN help and accused it of “ignoring the suffering of the civilians . . . until [they] are at the brink of death”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross considered the suburb besieged and delivered aid for thousands of people in recent days, Reuters said.
Not all the sieges are as severe as the blockade on Madaya. The Siege Watch report highlights three tiers of intensity, as well as areas on a watch list of potential siege situations.
It said the UN was overlooking some of the looser blockades, where black market traders and those with government links can smuggle food in to sell at “extortive and predatory prices”. These systems drain money from the area and ultimately lead to starvation, it said.
Siege Watch says its information comes from contacts on the ground. It plans to publish an estimate of the siege situation every three months. – (Guardian service)