Madaya under siege: One-day-old Fatima is the sixth infant to freeze to death this winter
15:41 Wednesday December 21st 2016
As the evacuation of eastern Aleppo resumes, thousands of civilians have been bussed away from the bombardment, including seven-year-old Bana Alabed, whose Twitter account told of her fear of death, and dozens of orphans. But as one besieged area is given relief, others across Syria remain in a critical state. In the mountain town of Madaya, near the Lebanese border, baby Fatima Isa died at just one day old as a lack of fuel for heating adds to the dearth of food and medical supplies in the area. Siege Watch, which reports on the conditions in besieged parts of Syria, says six infants have died so far in Madaya as winter takes hold.
Valerie Szybala, the executive director of the non-partisan Syria Institute, which runs Siege Watch along with the Dutch organisation PAX, told i that Madaya is not just on the way to disaster – it’s already there. “Madaya is experiencing widespread malnutrition due to starvation,” she said.
“It is under intensive siege, there are few if any options for smuggling, it doesn’t have a lot of arable land, so there’s not a lot of ability for local production which allows other areas to survive. “And it’s the winter now, and Madaya like many other besieged areas does not have access to fuel. They’ve burned most of their flammable materials, including chopping down trees, and the temperatures are below freezing.
“So the situation there is incredibly critical and people are dying frequently.” Madaya, a former holiday resort, is held by a mixture of different rebel factions and is under siege by regime forces led by Hezbollah, the Shia militant group based in Beirut, Lebanon. Ms Szybala says snipers around the town are targeting “everything that moves” – “including children, women, you name it”.
Heavily besieged areas
Siege Watch’s latest report found that a million Syrians were living under siege conditions, with more than a million more at risk of falling into that situation. The most heavily besieged areas, after the fall of Aleppo, are rebel-held neighbourhoods in the cities of Damascus and Homs, along with Deir ez-Zor which is mostly held by pro-government militias and under attack by Isis.
Ms Szybala says that since her organisation started reporting, official UN figures have been revised upwards – almost doubling in six months as they more closely matched Siege Watch’s estimates – and that “it appears there has been some politicisation of the data” from officials working in Damascus. Siege Watch uses an extensive network of observers on the ground to compile its data, many of whom have been killed as they live and work under the shadow of war.
Why siege and not assault
Asked for an explanation as to why so many areas have fallen into siege conditions for such protracted period, Ms Szybala points to 2013, when “a lot of people were proclaiming that Assad was going to fall”. Western powers were also considering ramping up action, until David Cameron lost his vote in the House of Commons. The army was experiencing manpower issues and observers felt Assad didn’t have the military capacity to invade and fight street-to-street in so many places.
“They may have seen siege as an effective way to give some form of control and in the long-term to squeeze out opposition in places they couldn’t retake militarily,” says Ms Szybala. “They didn’t have the manpower to go in, but they could block access and starve people out.” Over time, that evolved into “a central tenet of the Syrian government’s military strategy” – and as Russia became more heavily involved with aerial bombardments, the situation became more critical for people in towns and neighbourhoods held by anti-government rebels. As Syria and international powers work to build a lasting settlement for Aleppo, hundreds of thousands of others remain without food or fuel, under siege.