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-majority 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 around $250.
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.
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 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.”
OUTRAGE: Images of starving children and emaciated bodies have sparked outrage, including in Britain, where the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, called for air drops of food by the country’s air force.
“Forty thousand people have been under siege by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies in Madaya,” he said. “If Britain can assure the safety of pilots and do food drops, we should. Britain should simultaneously be pressuring Russia and Iran, via the EU and the UN, to make the Assad regime stop this medieval-style siege of thousands of people.”
Madaya, a town 1,300 metres 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.
By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2016