‘Cowardly weapon’ of starvation claims lives of Syrians cut off from world

At least 23 people in blockaded town of Madaya have died, says aid group; residents say their plight being ignored

An undated photo taken from social media shows an emaciated man in Madaya, Syria.

At least 23 people have already starved to death in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, aid workers said Friday, as those trapped with no food urged the international community not to ignore their plight.

“We don't understand how the world could do nothing to resolve this crisis after witnessing such tragedy,” said Abu Khalil, an internal refugee in the town, which has been cut off by government forces for months.

“Civilians, including women and children, are dying because of the use of this cowardly weapon," Khalil added in reference to the use of starvation as a tactic of war.

On Thursday, the government in Damascus finally agreed to allow international aid into Madaya amid warnings from the United Nations that international humanitarian law prohibits “the targeting of civilians and their starvation” as a weapon.

The U.N. welcomed the belated move to make way for much-needed food and medicine to be transported into the town, but added that almost 42,000 people — half of them children — remained in Madaya and are still at risk. It added that credible reports had been received of people starving to death or being killed trying to leave the besieged town.

Pictures of skeletal residents and emaciated children have been widely distributed in recent days, drawing fresh attention to the plight of civilians in the years-long civil war.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym (MSF), said that of the 23 people they knew of who have died of starvation, six were less than a year old, and five were above 60. The starvation deaths occurred at the local MSF-supported health center, the charity said.

“This is a clear example of the consequences of using siege as a military strategy,” MSF's operations director Brice de le Vingne said in a statement. 

Medics had been forced to feed children with medical syrups as the only available source of sugar and energy, he said, describing Madaya as “effectively an open air prison” for nearly half of its residents. “There is no way in or out, leaving the people to die.”

Khalil, speaking from Madaya, said that he had “lost hope” of aid arriving. “We are starving, we are eating cats and dogs.” he said.

Asked what message he wanted to convey to the world, Khalil said: “I just want to remind people we are here, we are human.”

The U.N. has estimated that almost 400,000 people are trapped in besieged Syrian locations such as Madaya. Over the last year, just 10 percent of all requests for aid conveys to such areas were approved and delivered, the U.N. said.

MSF welcomed the decision from Damascus to allow food supplies, but stressed that “an immediate life-saving delivery of medicine across the siege line should also be a priority.”

In Geneva, U.N, agencies said the aid convoy would head to Madaya in the coming days, although the specifics were still being finalized.

“The situation is ghastly,” said U.N. rights office spokesman Rupert Colville, indicating that details of the casualties and the extent of the suffering in Madaya were difficult to verify given the limited access.  

In addition to those who have succumbed to starvation, 13 people who tried to escape in search of food have also been killed, after they stepped on land mines laid by government forces or were shot by snipers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group.

Despite numerous U.N. requests, Madaya last received humanitarian assistance in October. 

The siege there reflects stark realities elsewhere in Syria, where roughly 227,000 people are trapped by government forces in three key areas.

Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold outside Damascus, has about 176,000 people said to be trapped, while about 9,000 people are stuck in the Damascus suburb of Darayya and in the western town of Zabadani.

Madaya, which lies in the country’s south, has been under siege by allies of Assad's government since July.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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