Syria finally grants U.N. access to starving town

Providing food vouchers in Lebanon to Syrian refugees. (WFP/Rein Skullerud)

The Syrian government is allowing the U.N. to deliver humanitarian assistance in the rebel-held city of Madaya. It comes days after reports revealed that the village’s inhabitants are facing what has been characterized as an “extremely dire” situation. A prolonged siege by government forces has left some 20,000 people without medicine and facing deadly hunger.

“Madaya is now effectively an open-air prison for an estimated 20,000 people, including infants, children and elderly,” said Brice de le Vingne, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, in a news release. “The medics we support report injuries and deaths by bullets and landmines among people that tried to leave Madaya. The desperation is so acute that yesterday people rioted trying to seize the last food available at an MSF-supported distribution point, which was intended to provide for the most vulnerable.”

A siege since July has kept the 40,000 residents of Madaya trapped in the town and unable to access basic goods. The price of two pounds of flour costs $100 and rice is $250 due to the limited supplies, according to the Syrian-American Medical Society. VICE reported earlier this week that starvation killed 31 people in the past month.

Activists have pleaded for the Syrian government to allow humanitarian agencies to access Madaya. People are surviving on leaves and spice-flavored water, which provide too few calories for the most vulnerable people – children and the elderly. MSF says six children under 5 years old and five people older than 60 died from starvation. Those who attempt to flee the city are being killed, according to the U.N.

The siege and targeting of civilians violate international humanitarian law. Countries may not starve civilians, as Syria is doing on Madaya. The ongoing civil war in the country has left 4.5 million people in hard-to-reach areas – 400,000 of which are in 15 besieged locations.

“This is a clear example of the consequences of using siege as a military strategy,” said de le Vingne. “Now that the siege has tightened, the doctors we support have empty pharmacy shelves and increasing lines of starving and sick patients to treat. Medics are even resorting to feeding severely malnourished children with medical syrups, as they are the only source of sugar and energy, thereby accelerating the consumption of the few remaining medical supplies.”

Humanitarian groups and the U.N. have tried to access these areas in Syria to little avail. The last time a joint U.N., Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Red Cross convoy made it to Madaya was in mid-October. The aid that will be able to enter the town is likely temporary. The plan is to deliver enough food aid to support 40,000 people for one month.

More details will emerge in the coming days about the extent of hunger in the town. Current information is coming from social media and people who are able to gain access to the town. Videos and pictures depict emaciated children and meals being prepared that are little more than leafy greens and water.

“I can tell you that the situation is extremely critical. We are very concerned by all the information and images we are seeing,” said Dibeh Fakhr, a Red Cross spokeswoman, to CNN.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.