Hunger grips millions across the Middle East
Beirut - In a Middle East torn apart by war and conflict, fighters are increasingly using food as a weapon.
Millions of people across countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq are gripped by hunger, struggling to survive with little help from the outside world. Children suffer from severe malnutrition, their parents often resort to selling possessions or begging to buy basic needs, including water, medicine and fuel.
The biggest humanitarian catastrophe by far is Syria, where a ruinous 5-year civil war has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced half the population. All sides in the conflict have used punishing blockades to force submission and surrender from the other side — a tactic that has proved effective particularly for government forces seeking to pacify opposition-held areas around Damascus.
Since October, Russian air strikes and the start of yet another winter exacerbated a humanitarian crisis and led to deaths by starvation in some places.
Humanitarian teams who recently entered a besieged Syrian town related scenes that “haunt the soul”, said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He accused both the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels fighting to oust him of using starvation as a weapon, calling it a war crime.
Although sieges are accepted military practices that are often carried out by forces to avoid intense urban conflict, the conduct of forces carrying them out and their behaviour towards civilian populations are regulated by international humanitarian law.
The United Nations and aid agencies have struggled with funding shortages and growing impediments to the delivery of humanitarian assistance despite UN Security Council resolutions insisting on the unconditional delivery of aid across front lines.
In Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished nation, nearly half of the country’s 22 provinces are considered one step away from famine.
Here’s a look at major areas in the Middle East under siege or suffering starvation:
The United Nations estimates more than 400,000 people are besieged in 15 communities across Syria, about half of them in areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, the United Nations was able to deliver food to about 5% of people in besieged areas. Current estimates show the organisation is reaching less than 1%.
In 2015, the World Food Programme (WFP) was forced to reduce the size of the food rations it provides to families inside Syria by up to 25% because of funding shortfalls. The agency says it has to raise $25 million every week to meet basic food needs of people affected by the Syrian conflict.
Some of the hardest-hit blockaded areas in Syria are:
Madaya: A town north-east of Damascus with a population of 40,000. The town has been besieged by government and allied militiamen for months and gained international attention after harrowing pictures emerged showing emaciated children. Doctors Without Borders says 28 people have died of starvation in Madaya since September. Two convoys of humanitarian aid recently reached the town. Aid workers who entered described seeing skeletal figures; children who could barely talk or walk; and parents who gave their children sleeping pills to calm their hunger.
Fouaa and Kfarya: Two Shia villages in the northern province of Idlib with a combined population of about 20,000. The villages have been blockaded by rebels for more than a year. Pro-government fighters recently evacuated from the villages describe desperate conditions there with scarce food and medicine, saying residents are eating grass to survive and undergoing surgery without anaesthesia. Aid convoys entered the villages simultaneously with the aid to Madaya after months-long negotiations between the government and armed groups.
Deir ez-Zor: An estimated 200,000 people living in government-held parts of this city in eastern Syria are besieged by ISIS. The United Nations says most of the residents are women and children facing sharply deteriorating conditions due to the ban on all commercial or humanitarian access, as well as the inability of residents to move outside of the city. While government stocks continue to provide bread, there are severe shortages of food, medicine and basic commodities. Opposition activists say they have documented the death of 27 people from malnutrition. Water is available only once a week for a few hours.
The humanitarian situation has dramatically deteriorated, nearly 300 days after the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign aimed at driving Yemen’s Shia rebels from cities under their control. Coalition ships are blockading traffic in Yemen’s ports and rebels are besieging several areas, particularly the southern city of Taiz.
About 14.4 million Yemenis, more than half of the population, are food insecure, an increase of 12% in the last eight months, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation said.
In late December, the WFP said 7.8 million of Yemen’s 24 million people are in even more dire condition, “facing life-threatening rates of acute malnutrition”, up by more than 3 million in less than a year. It said ten of the country’s 22 provinces are in “the grip of severe food insecurity” at the “emergency” level, one step short of famine on the agency’s scale of food security.
In Taiz, with a population of about 250,000, residents have been going hungry for weeks, the WFP said.
The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Jamie McGoldrick said recently that basic services, including access to water and fuel, in Taiz are scarce.
The severe shortage of food, fuel and medicine across Yemen led to an increase in the number of children suffering from malnutrition and the destruction of health facilities treating them led to deaths.
About 3 million children under 5 years require services to treat or prevent malnutrition, according to a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report.
Massive population shifts in Iraq due to violence have made it more difficult for millions of people to access food, medicine and safe drinking water. More than 3 million Iraqis are displaced within the country by violence and instability. “They’ve lost their livelihoods, their jobs, and hunger and the inability to purchase food is a reality in their everyday life,” said WFP communications officer Marwa Awad. In total 8.2 million Iraqis are in need of humanitarian assistance: food, water, shelter or medicine, she said.
Violence in many of Iraq’s provinces that are also home to people who have been uprooted by conflict is of the greatest concern, Awad said. In Anbar, Nineveh and Saladin the price of food has risen by as much as 38% in recent weeks and in some cases the Iraqi government has had to airlift families out of towns and villages besieged by fighting between Iraqi government forces and ISIS.
In Ramadi, families who had been held by ISIS as human shields said they survived for days on only rice and flour.
While conflict in Iraq hasn’t led to starvation, Awad said WFP has seen an increase in malnutrition as people eat less to conserve the little food they do have.
Syrian refugees in
According to UNICEF, malnutrition is a major threat among millions of refugees. A 2015 report showed that almost 2,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon suffer from severe acute malnutrition and need immediate treatment. It warned the situation could deteriorate as malnutrition is linked to poor hygiene, unsafe drinking water, lack of immunisation, diseases and improper infant and young child feeding practices.
(The Associated Press)