Following reports from Doctors Without Borders that people are starving to death in the Syrian town of Madaya, a United Nations-led aid convoy has embarked for Madaya and the neighboring towns of Foah and Kufraya with emergency supplies. Twenty-eight people have died of starvation in Madaya since December 1, six of whom were children under the age of one. Over the course of the rainy night, the convoy unloaded 355 tons of humanitarian aid, using car headlights and phone flashlights to see in a town where artificial light is a thing of the past.
Madaya, 25 kilometers northwest of Damascus and 11 kilometers from the Lebanese border, has been besieged by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah since July. Cut off from access to food, some residents in the town have had to resort to eating leaves, grass, donkeys, and cats. Reports and images of starving children published by the media led to international outrage over the weekend, though the authenticity of the images were later called into question. However, multiple sources have confirmed the reports.
— UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) January 11, 2016
One woman told The New York Times that she watched someone picking grass to eat, and only later realized the emaciated figure was her neighbor. In December, the same woman had spent $40 dollars for a few spoonfuls of sugar to feed her unconscious 19-year-old daughter, who was trying to nurse an infant of her own. "Madaya is now effectively an open-air prison," said Brice de la Vingne, the operations director for Doctors Without Borders, in a statement last week. The aid organization, which has an affiliate clinic in Madaya, estimates that more than 250 people in Madaya are suffering from acute malnutrition, ten of whom were in immediate need of lifesaving hospitalization.
The convoy of 50 trucks—operated by the Syrian Red Crescent, the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the UN's World Food Programme—travelled to Madaya Monday. They left the WFP warehouse in rural Damascus on Saturday, January 9, loaded with food rations including rice, vegetable oil, sugar, flour, and salt, as well as medical supplies. The town cautiously celebrated the news that help was on the way. The WFP also says it has shipped a one-month supply of food to the town for more than 40,000 people, and partner organizations contributed other essential supplies such as baby formula, blankets, and water. An additional 4,000 family rations, enough to feed 20,000 people for one month, were shipped to the cities of Foah and Kufraya, which are besieged by rebel forces.
"There's not a single piece of fruit or vegetable in the whole town," Steve Taravella, a senior spokesperson for the World Food Programme, told MUNCHIES. "These are people who are really in desperate need. We're talking about the basic necessities to keep people alive."
The WFP and its partners supplied 350 tons of humanitarian aid, 250 of which are food items from the WFP that are ready to eat, such as canned foods like beans and lentils, as many of the affected people don't have access to cooking facilities. In Madaya, one family told WFP workers that they had sold their car for three kilos of rice, and another said the women in their family had sold what little gold they had for rice as well.
"We're talking really desperate conditions that have gone on for far too long," Taravella told MUNCHIES. "The men were underweight and fragile and weak … really just as news reports have indicated."
Aid groups have found themselves in challenging positions as they seek to help those affected by the ongoing civil war, now in its fifth year. Siege-and-starve tactics have forced aid groups into dangerous territory to deliver aid, where they must deliver relief under armed guard while a battle rages nearby. An aid convoy came under attack in Homs last February.
Using hunger as a weapon violates international law, but, the Times reports, countries like the United States, Russia, and Iran haven't been able or willing to intervene. Rebel forces likewise besiege towns that back Assad, but government helicopters make supply drops from time to time.
Aid organizations are often unable to deliver aid where it is needed most. The WFP says they were given permission to deliver aid to Madaya last October, but have been denied access since, despite having twice requested to make deliveries.
Taravella credited media coverage and subsequent social media reactions in part for the go-ahead to deliver food to Madaya. Similar requests are often denied throughout war-torn Syria. Only 10 percent of United Nations requests to deliver food to war-ravaged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria were approved last year, areas where, according to the BBC, 4.5 million Syrians live. Four-hundred thousand Syrians are currently besieged in 15 locations, cut off from humanitarian services.
"We have made more than ten requests to authorities to deliver food since early December," Taravella said. "We are taking advantage of this window of access to get as much in as we can." He says that two additional convoys will take advantage of the current opening to deliver more food and aid supplies this week.
"This is a situation none of us want to see," Taravella said. "It's painful for those of us who work in food assistance to see people suffering as much as these communities have suffered."
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