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Celebratory Gunfire as Syria Allows UN to Bring Food Into the Starving Town of Madaya

The town is encircled by a blockade of Hezbollah fighters supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and no food has been allowed in for months. Citizens have died from starvation inside and others have been killed trying to flee.
January 7, 2016, 4:40pm
Photo via activists in Madaya

The United Nations announced on Thursday that it would be delivering food aid to the besieged Syrian town of Madaya with the cooperation of the Syrian government, as over 40,000 people in the mountain village face starvation.

"They tell us the aid will come into Madaya in a couple of hours," Rajaai, a 26-year old English and math teacher told VICE News by phone, though the UN has not given a specific timeline on the distribution of aid. "People are shooting their guns in the air to celebrate."

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The town, which lies between the Lebanese border at the capital of Damascus, has been blockaded since last summer by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is supporting him. A small contingent of rebel forces from the group Ahrar al Sham are holed up inside Madaya, and sources in the city have told VICE News that residents trying to flee have been blown up by land mines and shot down at checkpoints manned by Hezbollah.

In the past month alone, 31 residents have died from starvation or have been seriously wounded while attempting to breach the blockade that surrounds the town.

The humanitarian situation within has deteriorated precipitously. The UN's World Food Program says that it has been unable to deliver aid since October 17, and food stores inside the town have long since run out.

"WFP is deeply concerned about the reported humanitarian situation in Madaya, which has been besieged for many months, now threatening the lives of nearly 40,000 people," WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said on Thursday. The UN has confirmed that people have died from starvation inside the town and that others have been killed trying to flee.

VICE News spoke with several Madaya locals who are surviving off of leaves and scraps. On Monday, 52-year-old Um Mohammad said that she hasn't had a real meal in months, and that her "only dream is to have a piece of bread."

On Wednesday, the Syrian American Medical Association (SAMS) sent VICE News video of malnourished children inside the town.

"The regime want people to die there,"said Dr. Ammar Ghanem, a member of the Syrian-American Medical Society's board who grew up in the area, told VICE News.

Since September, the warring parties have been trying to work out a truce that lifts the siege of Madaya and the nearby town of Zabadani in exchange for the cessation of parallel rebel sieges on the regime-loyal cities of Kafrayya and Fua.

"It's a negotiating ploy," Joshua Landis, the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and editor of the blog Syria Comment, told VICE News on Monday. "Basically Hezbollah is taking hostages."

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That strategy seems to have borne some fruit today as the UN announced that it has struck a deal with the Syrian government to deliver aid to all three municipalities.

"The Syrian government approved the interagency convoy to Madaya, Fua, and Kafrayya," confirmed Ghalia Seifo, a spokesperson with the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

How that approval was secured and when the food will arrive are both unclear.

"The government hasn't talked to us directly yet," Rajai said, noting that the Ahrar al Sham fighters in town are also not making it clear how the agreement to bring in food was reached. Fighters declined to speak to VICE News on the record.

VICE News has asked the UN for details of the deal — how much food will be delivered, when it will arrive, and whether a specific trade was struck to relieve the separate sieges simultaneously. The story will be updated if those specifics can be confirmed.

Samuel Oakford contributed to this report.