Besieged town awaits aid after starving Syrians eat pets, grass to survive

Government in Damascus has agreed to let in aid to Madaya as images of emaciated residents shock and appall

Images of starving children and emaciated residents of a besieged Syrian village have drawn fresh attention to the civilian toll of the country's civil war, as the government in Damascus finally agreed to allow in international aid.

The United Nations said in a statement Thursday it was preparing to deliver humanitarian assistance in the coming days to the town of Madaya, which has been cut off by government forces for months, and to two Shia towns in Idlib province that have been isolated by rebel fighters.

Madaya has been under siege since July, and conditions have grown worse with the onset of winter, residents there said. The last aid delivery to both Madaya and the two Shia villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, which are cut off by rebel forces, was in October.

“We were living on tree leaves, on plants,” said Majed Ali, 28, an opposition activist who spoke to Reuters by phone from Madaya. “But now we are struggling in a snowstorm, and there are no more plants or leaves.”

Ali said he lost close to 30 percent of his weight since the siege began, dropping from about 250 pounds to 176.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday said at least 23 people, including children, have died in Madaya because of the siege, and at least 300 children are suffering from malnutrition.

Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Damascus, also outlined the scale of suffering in the area.

“We have seen credible reports that people are starving … People are hungry, and it is very cold out there with no electricity or fuel,” Krzysiek told the DPA news agency.

Medical professionals in Madaya said people “were eating grass to stay alive.”

“We cannot provide milk for infants,” Dr. Khaled Mohammed told DPA this week. “Today a 10-year-old child died of malnutrition.”

Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, told Al Jazeera that hundreds of thousands of people are in similar situations across Syria. 

“We believe there are 400,000 people in 15 towns and cities who are in a situation where they are besieged by different parties to the conflict,” Fleming said.

“‘Besieged’ translates into civilians completely cut off from any humanitarian aid: no food, no medicine, shelters without heat and water. These are situations under which people cannot survive any more,” she said.

The crisis drew attention this week as images and video from inside Madaya surfaced on social media. 

An emaciated child shown on a video says he has not eaten for seven days: “[Seven days] I swear!” he exclaims, gaunt and pale but smiling.

Other images show the bodies of old men said to have died of hunger and young children stumbling through snowy streets clutching their stomachs as if in pain.

Madaya resident Abu Abdul Rahman told Al Jazeera that he has not eaten for four days.

He said he and his family have been trying to limit their movements inside their house to preserve their energy.

The town’s starving residents have eaten pet animals, Rahman said.

“There are no more cats or dogs alive in the town,” he said. “Even tree leaves that we have been eating have become scarce,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.

More than 250,000 people have died in Syria in the nearly five years of conflict. The UN's Syria mediator aims to convene peace talks in Geneva on Jan. 25 in the latest effort to end the war.

Correction: A photo previously attached to this story supplied by The Associated Press incorrectly identified the location of a malnourished child as Madaya, Syria. It has since emerged that the photo was taken in Ghouta and has been removed from this article.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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