BEIRUT • Amid mounting international dismay over reports of starvation deaths and images of skeletally thin children in the besieged, rebel- held Syrian town of Madaya, the Syrian government has agreed to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, the United Nations said.
But no firm date was set, and UN officials said that while they welcomed the government's decision on Thursday to allow the aid to enter Madaya, 42,000 people were "at risk of further hunger and starvation", citing "credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave".
The announcement came after Syrian opposition leaders issued a statement saying silence and inaction from powerful nations and world organisations made them "complicit in starving civilians".
And the aid agency Doctors Without Borders said 23 patients had "died of starvation" at one health centre in Madaya since Dec 1. Six of them were under a year old.
In recent days, Syrians have been posting photos and videos on social media: an eight-year-old boy who said he had not eaten for 10 days and longed for sweets; the shrivelled body of a man who starved to death, his rib cage jutting out over a caved-in stomach.
The mother of a two-year-old child interviewed by British newspaper The Telegraph broke down in tears as she described the fight to keep her child alive. "There is nothing. Nothing. She's so thin I see her muscles straining through her skin when she cries, and I cannot help. I am her mother and I cannot help," she said, the infant's screams ringing out in the background.
NO MORE LEAVES TO EAT
We were living on tree leaves, on plants, but now we are struggling in a snowstorm and there are no more plants or leaves. I was 114kg before the siege. Now I am 80.
MR MAJED ALI, 28, an opposition activist in the besieged town of Madaya in Syria.
"We were living on tree leaves, on plants, but now we are struggling in a snowstorm and there are no more plants or leaves," said opposition activist Majed Ali, 28, who spoke by phone from Madaya. "I was 114kg before the siege. Now I am 80."
Residents in Madaya make do with water flavoured, where available, with spices, lemon, salt and vinegar, said Mr Abu Hassan Mousa, the head of an opposition council in the town. Children eat soup made from leaves and water, one activist, Mr Sham Abdullah, told CNN.
The cost of basic goods has surged, with 1kg of crushed wheat selling for up to US$250 (S$358) and 900g of powdered formula for babies going for about US$300, reported the BBC.
"I swear by God, and you might not believe me because it sounds fantastical, I tried to buy some food today, but a kilo of rice is 100,000 (Syrian) pounds (S$65)," a social worker from the town told The Guardian in a phone interview. "A kilo of rice, bulgur, lentil, sugar - 100,000, 100,000, 100,000. That is if you can find it."
Dr Ammar Ghanem, a Syrian American doctor who grew up in Madaya and has been in touch with family there, said that "lately people are going after cats and dogs, to catch them and eat them".
Babies are kept alive in hospital with medicine and injections of sugar and salt, reported ITV News.
With half a metre of snowfall this week, furniture, doors and wooden fixtures and fittings are being burnt to heat homes, said Mr Ali. "Negotiations have no meaning all the time we are besieged, all the time we are hoping for a cup of milk for a child. What are we going to negotiate over? Our dead?" he pointed out.
Madaya is an important test case for the future of any peace talks on Syria and for the UN's credibility because the town is involved in a local ceasefire deal brokered and promoted by the UN as a building block for a nationwide ceasefire.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS