Madaya suffering has no precedent in Syria war: UN’s Malik

The suffering in the Syrian town of Madaya is the worst seen in the country’s civil war, the United Nations said Tuesday, a day after delivering aid to the area besieged for months.

“There is no comparison in what we saw in Madaya,” the UN refugee agency’s chief in Damascus, Sajjad Malik, told journalists in Geneva, when asked to compare the devastation in the town to other areas in Syria. He said there were “credible reports” of people starving to death during the months-long siege by pro-regime forces.

Residents, who say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, walk past Syrian Army soldiers as they depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria - January 11, 2016 [photo by Reuters/Omar Sanadiki]
Residents, who say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, walk past Syrian Army soldiers as they depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria – January 11, 2016 [photo by Reuters/Omar Sanadiki]

A convoy of 44 trucks from the UN, Syrian Red Crescent and International Red Cross (ICRC) delivered emergency food supplies to Madaya on Monday, in the first aid to reach the area since October.

“There was no life,” said Malik, who was in the convoy, describing a town of desperate people who in many cases were too weak to voice outrage over their suffering. Food has been so scarce that people “repeatedly mentioned that a kilo of rice would cost $300 (275 euros)”, Malik said.

One family “sold a motorbike to get five kilos of rice,” he added, detailing the extent of the devastation among the town’s estimated 40,000 inhabitants.

“Whatever we had in the cars, we gave to them,” Malik said.

‘400 residents must leave’ for medical treatment: UN’s O’Brien

Some 400 people in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya need to be urgently evacuated for medical treatment, says UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien. Mr O’Brien was speaking after the UN Security Council held an urgent meeting to discuss the crisis in the rebel-held town near Damascus.

Monday’s aid delivery was the first allowed into Madaya since mid-October, when the UN’s World Food Programme took a month’s supply of food rations for 20,000 people. In total, some 44 lorries operated by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Red Crescent and the World Food Programme (WFP) reached Madaya from Damascus on Monday.

Simultaneously, aid lorries entered two towns besieged by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib under a deal between the warring parties. The situation in Fouaa and Kafraya is also said to be dire, with an estimated 20,000 people trapped there since March.

Mr O’Brien said that a humanitarian co-ordinator at the hospital in Madaya saw around 400 people who needed to be evacuated immediately. “We must seek to do this and put the arrangements in place as soon as possible for medical treatment. Or they are in grave peril of losing their lives and dying with either the causes being from malnutrition or for complications for other medical reasons,” Mr O’Brien said.

A few town residents were given permission to leave and could be seen with their belongings awaiting evacuation. The convoy brought in food and medicines, as well as blankets, shelter materials and soap, with distribution expected to continue through the night.

Pawel Krzysiek, who is with the ICRC in Madaya, said: “The people… were coming every five minutes asking, ‘Listen, did you bring food, did you bring medicine?’ “Some are smiling and waving at us but many are just simply too weak, with a very bleak expression, too tired.”

Mr El Hillo told the BBC that UN staff saw starving children in the town.

One resident, Hiba Abdel Rahman, 17, told the AFP: “I saw a young man killing cats and presenting the meat to members of his family as rabbit. Some people went through garbage bins, others ate grass. “We sought food from the fighters but they refused to give it to us.”

Madaya, which is about 25km (15 miles) north-west of Damascus and 11km from the border with Lebanon, has been besieged since early July by government forces and their allies in Lebanon’s Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement. They want to capture the rebels holed up there, including fighters from the hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.

Meanwhile, 21 lorries on Monday entered Fouaa and Kafraya. The villages are about 7km (5 miles) to the north of the provincial city of Idlib, which is controlled by a rebel alliance including Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra. They were carrying basic food items – including rice, vegetable oil, flour, sugar and salt – as well as water, infant formula, blankets, medicines and surgical supplies.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Sunday that a total of 28 people – including six children less than one year old – had died of starvation in Madaya since 1 December. However, Syrian officials and Hezbollah have denied that there have been any deaths in the town. “The Syrian government is not and will not exert any policy of starvation against its own people,” Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Rebel leaders were also accused of selling food to Madaya residents at exorbitant prices. Blockades have been a feature of Syria’s civil war. Up to 4.5 million people live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to life-saving aid.

Sources: BBC News, AFP

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