Using food as a 'weapon' is a war crime, UN tells Syria
Sieges across Syria have left more than a million people at risk of starvation, new figures suggest, as Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, warned that "the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime".
Yesterday, the U.N. children's agency said that it witnessed the death of a teenager who died of starvation "in front of our eyes," as well as several cases of severe malnutrition among children trapped in a besieged Syrian town near Damascus.
Hanaa Singer, UNICEF's representative in Syria, said in a statement that the 16-year-old, identified as Ali, died of malnutrition on Thursday in a clinic in the town of Madaya.
Trucks from the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations entered Madaya on Thursday for the second time in a week after reports of starvation deaths. The town has been under siege for months by government forces.
Two other communities, the villages of Foua and Kfarya in northern Syria, also besieged by Syrian rebels, were included in the aid operation too.
The death of the teenager as international aid workers were inside Madaya reinforced the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in the town and other besieged areas.
Another aid worker who entered Madaya, Abeer Pamuk of SOS Children's Villages in Syria, said the situation is so devastating that desperate parents are resorting to giving children sleeping pills in order to calm their hunger.
"Their parents had nothing to feed them. So they just chose to let them sleep and forget about their hunger," she said in a statement from the group.
"None of the children I saw looked healthy. They all looked pale and skinny. They could barely talk or walk. Their teeth are black, their gums are bleeding, and they have lots of health problems with their skin, hair, nails and teeth," Pamuk added.
According to Siege Watch, a study of populations living under blockade, 49 out of besieged 52 areas are encircled by troops loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Another two have been cut off by rebel forces and one by Isil terrorists.
The most extreme effects have been felt in Madaya, the opposition enclave near the Lebanese border, where stories of almost 70 deaths by starvation have horrified the world. A second convoy of UN aid trucks reached the town last night, bringing flour and other essentials. As the trucks arrived, some residents wept with relief. But others said the aid would remain as mere "crumbs" as long as the source of their misery - the regime's crippling siege - remained in place.
"The whole world must know that this aid is not enough, it won't last more than 15 days," said one man, Abdullah. "What we really want is to break the siege."
After four months trapped there, civilians had survived on boiled leaves and dwindling bottles of cough syrup. Elderly residents died alone and from starvation, their bodies found days later. In a video posted online earlier this week, an emaciated boy whose pleas for aid had been broadcast around the world, was again shown calling for help. Suppressing a smile at first, Mohamed Eissa, said he was happy that aid had finally arrived. But his face quickly fell when a voice off-camera asked if he was tired. "Yes," he said.
UN officials said last week that the suffering in Madaya was worse than anything yet seen in this war. But other towns have come close. Aid groups say more than 560 people have died from blockades elsewhere, some from starvation, others from toxins ingested after foraging for dirty food.
Last night, activists in Moadamiya, seven miles from Mr Assad's Damascus palace, said that six people had died since a regime siege on the area was tightened on Christmas Day.
"We're completely isolated from the outside world," said Dani Qappani, a local activist. "The people here boil olives and herbs in water. They burn plastic and old cloth for heat."
Four people died there in the besieged suburb on Thursday, after their families were unable to take them out of the area for lifesaving treatment. One was a 15-year-old boy with special needs, according to reports.
Thursday's aid delivery was also bound for Fouaa and Kefraya, two northwestern towns encircled by fighters from Syria's al-Qaeda group, Jabhat al-Nusra.
In a letter published yesterday, more than 100 Syrian community and health workers accused the UN of failing to help besieged communities until it was too late. They accused the organisation of "creating unnecessary hurdles" to aid, waiting on regime permission despite two Security Council resolutions that authorise the practice without Mr Assad's consent. Many of the besieged areas close to Damascus, notably Ghouta and Douma, are only minutes away from UN warehouses full of aid.
Critics also say the aid deliveries, which come as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement between regime and rebels, effectively reward siege tactics, encouraging commanders to use them for as long as they elicit concessions from the international community.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, said on Wednesday that world powers would push for "immediate action" to deliver aid to besieged areas, after talks in Geneva with ambassadors from the Security Council's permanent members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
But inside Madaya, residents said they had lost faith.
"The entry of crumbs does not eliminate the hunger of hundreds of thousands of other people in this country," said one man.
"Even Madaya will return to hunger soon."