Heartbreaking scenes greet aid workers at Syrian town

A rebel fighter inspecting aid supplies in Red Crescent vehicles on their way to Fouaa and Kfarya on Monday. Aid was also sent to Madaya, where people are reported to have died of starvation.
A rebel fighter inspecting aid supplies in Red Crescent vehicles on their way to Fouaa and Kfarya on Monday. Aid was also sent to Madaya, where people are reported to have died of starvation.PHOTO: REUTERS

Starving residents of Syrian town under siege by govt troops get first supplies of food, drugs

LONDON • Hope mixed with anger and disbelief greeted aid workers taking the first food and medical supplies in months to the residents of a besieged Syrian town.

"You could see a mixture of hope in people's eyes and disbelief that this thing was actually happening," Mr Pawel Krzysiek of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.

"Many people were telling us, 'Listen, we haven't had bread or a proper meal for a very long time... we're dreaming about bread,'" Mr Krzysiek said. "One woman showed me a photo of a nice-looking dish that turned out to be leaves with spices and salt."

The aid convoy on Monday delivered the first food and medical relief in three months to the western town of Madaya, where 40,000 people are trapped by encircling government forces.

The aid was followed by talks on Tuesday between the United Nations, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to evacuate around 400 people from Madaya.

The UN commission of inquiry documenting war crimes in Syria has been in direct contact with residents inside Madaya, the commission's chairman, Mr Paulo Pinheiro, said.

"They have provided detailed information on shortages of food, water, qualified physicians and medicine. This has led to acute malnutrition and deaths among vulnerable groups in the town," he said.

The UN inquiry, composed of independent experts, has long denounced use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war, and has a confidential list of suspected war criminals and units from all sides which is kept in a UN safe in Geneva.

Rebel forces are also besieging the government-held villages of Fouaa and Kfarya in Idlib province, where UN supplies were also delivered on Monday, Mr Pinheiro noted. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters are besieging government-held areas of Deir al-Zor, he added.

Mr Yacoub El Hillo, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, told of heartbreaking scenes when the aid convoy made it to Madaya on Monday.

"We saw people who are clearly malnourished, especially children, we saw people who are extremely thin, skeletons, who are now barely moving," he told reporters in New York by phone from Damascus, saying all sides in the civil war were using siege as a tactic of war.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it had asked the government to allow it to send mobile clinics and medical teams to Madaya to assess the extent of malnutrition and evacuate the worst cases.

A local doctor said 300 to 400 people needed special medical care, according to Ms Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Damascus who went into Madaya with the convoy.

Western diplomats have also condemned the use of food as a weapon of war, with the US ambassador to the UN, Ms Samantha Power, accusing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of "grotesque starve-or-surrender tactics".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Heartbreaking scenes greet aid workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe