More than a million Syrians under siege ‘at risk of starvation’
52 areas blockaded, almost all by regime troops, new figures suggest, as UN warns using food as a weapon is a ‘war crime’
Sieges across Syria have left more than a million people at risk of starvation, new figures suggested on Thursday, as Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, warned that “the use of food as a weapon of war is a war crime”.
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 will not last more than 15 days,” said one man, Abdullah. “What we really want is to break the siege.”
After four months under medieval siege, 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 seen in Syria’s war. But other towns have come close. Aid groups say more than 560 people have died from blockades elsewhere, some from starvation, others from the toxins they 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 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 on Thursday, 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.”