CONVOYS taking aid to Madaya, Syria, on Monday night arrived too late for dozens who had already starved to death in the town, which has been under siege since July.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and the UN began delivering aid on Monday. UN representatives described desperate scenes. “You could see many were malnourished, starving,” the World Health Organization’s representative in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, said. “They were skinny, tired, severely distressed. There was no smile on anybody’s face. It is not what you see when you arrive with a convoy. The children I talked to said they had no strength to play.”
The town of 42,000 had been under siege by government forces for months, and had last received a single food distribution on 18 October. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said on Sunday that 28 people — including six children less than one year old — had died of starvation in Madaya since 1 December. Other organisations put the toll at 50.
Medics supported by MSF in the town have identified 250 people with severe acute malnutrition, including ten patients “in immediate need of life-saving hospitalisation”. Attempts to leave the town had led to injuries and deaths from bullets and landmines, they reported.
Aid was also delivered on Monday to the towns of Foua and Kefraya, near the city of Idleb, where 20,000 people have been encircled by an opposition group since March.
The representative in Syria of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sajjad Malik, warned on Tuesday that, unless the support delivered on Monday was sustained, it would be no more than a “Band-Aid, because within a month they will run out of food and medicines. What we saw in Madaya should not happen anywhere in this century; it should not have happened now.”
Images that purported to show starvation in Madaya, as well as reports that people were resorting to eating plants and pets, prompted international outrage last week. The town was stalked by “walking skeletons”, a resident, Mohammad, told Amnesty International last week.
Reports have been contested: Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian government, accused rebel leaders of preventing people from leaving.
A senior humanitarian-policy adviser, Johan Eldebo, said on Tuesday: “Madaya is only one area. This has been going on in Syria for many years now. . . Over the last year, increasingly, starvation and access to food has been used as a weapon of war. Civilians are paying the price for the failure to settle the conflict in any meaningful way.”
The UN estimates that there are 4.5 million people in hard-to-reach areas of Syria, of which 400,000 are under siege. Only about one per cent of the besieged population received food aid, and less than one per cent received health care. Only ten per cent of all requests for UN inter-agency convoys to these areas were approved and delivered in the past year.
Last month, the UN Security Council demanded that all parties, particularly the Syrian government, immediately open routes across conflict lines and borders to let in vital aid. Asked why the UN did not enforce earlier resolutions that demanded access to civilians, the Middle East spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, Abeer Etefa, told CNN: “You cannot force yourself into a community that’s besieged. It has to happen with all the parties . . . agreeing.”
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said last week that the deliberate starvation of civilians amounted to a war crime under international law.