A Dutch priest trapped in the siege on the Syrian city of Homs has told how residents around him are being driven mad with starvation, as they are "abandoned" by the international community.
Father Frans Van der Lugt, a 75-year-old Roman Catholic and local leader in the besieged Old City in Homs, told of his community's battle for survival in two years of living in a district brutalised by war and without food.
"Our city has become a lawless jungle," said Fr Van der Lugt. "We are trying our best to behave in a fraternal way, so that we don't turn on each other for the hunger."
Fr Van der Lugt spoke by Skype after posting a video online in which he appealed to the outside world for help, from a rebel-held district of Homs that has been sealed off by Syrian government troops.
For more than one year, no food has been allowed in, and no one is allowed out.
Efforts to negotiate access for humanitarian aid at last week's UN-brokered peace talks at Geneva failed. Now, said Fr Van der Lugt, food has run out.
"Infants are suffering the most," he said. "Nursing mothers can't feed their babies as they are too weak from hunger. We search everywhere for milk, and when we find it we mix it with water."
A few years ago, starvation would have seemed an impossible prospect for residents of Homs. A thriving commercial city, it was famous in Syria for its food and for its people's good sense of humour.
In many government-held parts of the city, life continues, almost as normal. However, just a few hundred metres away from these areas, in the Old City enclave, from which every exit is blocked by Syrian army tanks and sniper positions, hunger has already begun claiming lives. At least eight people have died of starvation, locals have reported.
A new video, posted from inside the siege, records two boys, their cheeks sunken and with dark rings under their eyes from malnutrition, listing what they have eaten in the past few weeks.
"We just have olives at home," says one of the boys, adding that it had been a long time since they have seen anything else.
Fr Van der Lugt, who is also a trained psychotherapist, said that, already suffering extreme stress from the war, hunger had begun "turning people insane".
"Some people are now suffering from mental illness; neurosis, panic attacks, psychotic and schizophrenic episodes and paranoia," he said.
"I try to help the mentally ill, not by analysing their problems, as the problems are obvious and there is no solution for them here. I listen to them and give as much food as I can."
The priest, who is from the Netherlands and has lived in Syria since 1966, said the Old City used to be home to 60,000 Christians, with 10 churches in the besieged areas: "Now I find myself alone with only 66 other Christians," he said.
The Syrian government has tried to publicly position itself as a protector of Christians in Syria, who make up about 12pc of the population.
The government might allow the Christians to leave the Old City, local activists said, but exiting would require crossing several active front lines that surround the neighbourhood.
Rebel fighters also fear that if the remaining Christian population were to escape, the regime would have no holds barred, flattening the buildings of the Old City with artillery and airstrikes, resulting in catastrophic fatalities among the around 1,500 Muslim residents in the area.
Fr Van der Lugt has in the past warned of the growing humanitarian crises in Homs. In September, he issued an appeal that food stocks were dwindling. Now, though, he sounded desperate. There was no more time for warnings.
"We are afraid that the international community abandoned us. They look for their interests, this is politics, but they have to know that the Syrian people are suffering," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)