Syria agrees to allow aid into three besieged villages

UN welcomes move after images of starving children and emaciated bodies sparked outrage

 

Kareem Shaheen in Beirut, Emma Graham-Harrison and Patrick Wintour

The United Nations says the Syrian government has agreed to allow aid delivery to the besieged town of Madaya, where residents have said they are starving to death under a blockade by troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

“The UN welcomes today’s approval from the government of Syria to access Madaya, Fua and Kefraya and is preparing to deliver humanitarian assistance in the coming days,” the office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs said in a statement on Thursday.

People in Fua and Kefraya are also enduring a debilitating siege after a rebel coalition known as Jaysh al-Fateh surrounded the two Shia enclaves in Idlib province in the spring of last year.

It remains unclear how much aid will be allowed into Madaya, situated a few miles from Damascus, where people have been reduced to scouring grass from minefields and eating tree leaves and boiling water flavoured with spices, and where a kilogram of rice now costs about $250 (€230).

The last aid delivery to the town was in October, and there are now shortages of everything from baby milk to basic medicine. Residents and UN officials say people have died from starvation.

Residents greeted the news with a mix of happiness and scepticism that the aid deliveries would endure. Madaya is only the latest example of a debilitating siege targeting a city in Syria, with areas of eastern Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus and the Yarmouk refugee camp south of the capital having suffered similar blockades by the Assad regime in the course of the five-year civil war.

Humanitarian catastrophe

1 Madaya 2 Foua 3 Kefraya

Opposition activists say the sieges amount to the systematic use of hunger as a weapon of war.

“Madaya is not on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, it is already a humanitarian catastrophe,” said a health worker in the town’s field hospital, reached by phone. “The view on the street is frightening, frightening. We know that people think we are exaggerating, but believe me, it is worse than any exaggeration.”

A teacher in the town, who requested anonymity, said: “There is nothing official from the government, they haven’t talked with us yet, so we have heard it from the news. We are afraid that would be a lie, so we felt happy at first, but now we are a little afraid. We don’t know anything about the amount of aid or what there will be, if there is milk for the children or other important things.”

But Louay, another resident trapped in the town, said: “People are really, really, really happy and thank God, smiles have been drawn on our faces.”

Madaya, a town 1,300m above sea level in a mountainous region straddling the border with Lebanon, is home to 30,000 people trapped in a siege since July, in a complicated power play.

Their fate is tied to Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in northern Syria surrounded by rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, where backers of the government and the rebels are attempting to orchestrate a population swap that has been repeatedly delayed due to the Russian intervention in Syria.

“Any amount of food, even small, can resolve the crisis for a week or 10 days,” said the medical worker in Madaya. “Even if aid enters now we need to know what comes next. There must be a clear working plan, and humanitarian agencies must pressure the regime and its allies.

“What’s important for me is to not walk in the street and see people dying from hunger,” he added.

Malnutrition

Residents say there are numerous cases of malnutrition among children in particular - a kilo of children’s milk costs about $130 - and fainting due to hunger is a regular occurrence. The Syrian American Medical Society documented 31 civilian deaths in Madaya in December, including six infants less than a year old, mostly due to malnutrition.

The medical worker said seven people had died so far in January due to starvation, and that schools have been closed as neither children nor teachers could cope with studying while starving. The UN said it has received credible reports of death by hunger in the city.

Madaya’s situation is far from unique. The UN estimates that 400,000 people in Syria live in 15 besieged locations without access to medical aid. Other organisations put the figure as high as 600,000 - mostly in areas blockaded by the regime.

“Through the sieges, they are pressuring the civilians so they in turn pressure the rebels and blame them for the siege,” said Abdullah al-Khatib, an activist and longtime resident of the Yarmouk refugee camp, which was besieged for three years by the Assad regime. “This is despite the fact that the ratio of armed rebels to civilians in these areas is usually one to ten, so the primary victims are the civilians.”

“In Syria we’ve had thousands dead by barrel bombs, chemical weapons and hunger sieges. The regime has used dozens of methods that are contrary to international humanitarian law,” he added. “It is an enormous number of violations. The international community shares the blame.”

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