A video created by activists showing devastating starvation in a besieged town in Syria is “heartbreaking but unfortunately all too common,” says a humanitarian aid organization helping vulnerable populations caught up in the country’s four-year-old civil war.
“We’ve seen in the last month an increased difficulty in getting anything into that area,” said Christy Delafield of Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps. “We had been planning to bring in food assistance and winterization supplies, blankets and what not, and in this past month things have gotten to the point where we can’t access the area at all.”
“We are hearing that families are eating leaves off trees to get any kind of calories into their systems,” she said.
Syrian activists say that 40,000 people living in the Syrian town of Madaya, near Damascus, are under siege and dying from starvation. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Wednesday that the Assad regime is using starvation as a tactic of war.
“It’s pretty heart-rending, and frankly, it’s despicable,” spokesman John Kirby said during a media briefing. “It’s yet more proof not just of the brutality of this regime and their lack of legitimacy — Assad’s lack of legitimacy — but yet more proof of why it’s so important for the Vienna process to move forward; for us not to get — to let the current tensions in the Middle East derail that process, to get to a political solution, a peaceful political solution in Syria that could get to a government that will be responsive to the desperate needs of the Syrian people rather than one that simply compounds those desperate needs through overt acts like barrel bombing or starving their own citizens.”
Madaya is “just one of many besieged communities that we know about,” said Fran Charles, World Vision’s Advocacy Director for the Syria Crisis Response. “Over the past four years, the sieges have become longer and even worse.”
Charles said the UN and the rest of the humanitarian community should “systematically monitor and register major obstacles to humanitarian access — for example, by reporting on arbitrary denials of access, including administrative hurdles and delays.”
Al Jazeera reported Thursday that the Syrian government has allowed humanitarian workers access to the opposition-held town. The UN said in a statement on Thursday that it was preparing to deliver humanitarian assistance in the coming days to Madaya.
Delafield said it would be the first aid convoy since October. “People need dependable and regular access to food. It needs to be unfettered,” she said in an interview Thursday. “Humanitarian agencies need to be able to access the area on a regular basis, in order for people to know where their next meal is coming from.”
She also voiced support for aid getting in and not waiting for political solutions. “We can’t wait for negotiations to finish before we can access these areas,” she said.
On Friday, the Beirut regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Michel Constantin, said he had contacted Church leaders in the area, who all stated that the only intervention right now is exclusively by the Red Cross and the United Nations. “A Church initiative is not possible at present because the political and military situation is very delicate,” Constantin said.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.