Humanitarian aid reaches starved Syrian towns
BEIRUT - It took more than 20 deaths from starvation, lack of medicine and a worldwide uproar over images of emaciated children to force open front lines and political barriers that had prevented delivery of desperately needed humanitarian assistance to the besieged town of Madaya, west of Damascus.
The 42,000 hunger-stricken people stranded inside the Sunni town waited three months for aid convoys of the United Nations, the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to be allowed in.
Seventy truckloads of medical supplies, food and non-food items, including blankets, winter clothes and mattresses, were unloaded throughout the night of January 11th to January 12th, in Madaya and two Shia villages, Foua and Kefraya, besieged by rebels in Idlib province. The aid for Madaya was the first to reach the town since October.
“It was dark, cold and raining. The few people who were outside, especially children, looked very skinny and weary. It seemed very much that they have malnutrition,” said Firas al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR.
He said the “life-sustaining assistance” could feed 60,000 people in the three locations for at least one month. Efforts are under way to have more than a one-shot distribution of aid.
“There is a non-stop effort to allow open access so that humanitarian teams can go in to assess the situation and to deliver,” Khateeb said.
The assistance did not include fuel for heating, although temperatures can drop to below zero in the mountainous area where people are said to be burning everything from plastic bags to clothes to try to keep warm.
“We are bringing in medical assistance, including surgical kits and medicaments. Our priority is to deliver food and medical supplies, though fuel is also essential,” ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said in a telephone interview.
It will take several days to complete the delivery.
Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the delivery process in Madaya was delayed slightly until aid convoys could reach the government-held villages of Foua and Kefraya, about 200km north of Damascus.
“Also some logistical mishaps occurred as the residents insisted on having the assistance delivered to them directly,” Abdel Rahman added.
About 125 gunmen in Madaya have been accused of seizing supplies and conducting arbitrary distributions, while some were selling aid to the highest bidder.
Mohamad About Kassem, who was displaced to Madaya from nearby Zabadani, said, “The few remnants of past assistance were being sold at astronomical prices. One guy has sold his car for 1 million Syrian pounds ($4,500) in return for 4 kilos of rice and 4 kilos of milk.”
Doctors without Borders (MSF) recently reported that 28 people, including six infants and five elderly people, had died of starvation in Madaya since early December.
In New York, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said there were 400 people who needed to be evacuated immediately to receive treatment for medical conditions, malnourishment and starvation.
Madaya has been under siege by the Syrian Army and fighters from Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah since July 2015. The stranglehold on the town tightened since October, in retaliation for the continuing siege of Foua and Kefarya.
People have been trying to survive on soups of grass, tree leaves and spices. Some were said to have eaten cats and donkeys.
Siege and starvation tactics have been used by both sides in Syria’s long conflict, notwithstanding a UN Security Council resolution ordering the warring parties to allow aid deliveries.
The situation in Madaya was manipulated by warring parties in a propaganda war on social and conventional media.
Rebel groups used photos of starving children to stir worldwide condemnation of the regime and its Hezbollah ally and the latter claimed the images were fabricated. Hezbollah said in a statement that militants have been withholding food from the people and preventing them from leaving the town.
Delivering aid to Madaya was supposed to take place in line with an agreement between militants and the regime in December. The first phase saw the withdrawal of rebel fighters in Zabadani in return for the evacuation of civilians from Foua and Kefraya. The remaining phases, including aid distribution in Madaya, failed to materialise.
“We have accepted all the conditions imposed by the regime and Hezbollah but still the town remained under total siege,” Mousa al-Maleh, the head of the local council in Madaya said in a telephone interview.
“The images of starving children in Madaya reflect the harsh reality. We need a sustainable solution entailing the complete lifting of the siege and access to food and medicines once and for all. We do not want to face the same issue all over again in one or two months.”