The Syrian town of Madaya in the western countryside of Damascus has been besieged by the Assad regime forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah since July. Photographs of emaciated bodies of locals dying of starvation have begun to emerge and circulate on social media networks over the last few weeks, drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis in the snow-capped mountain town.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 10 people have died from lack of food and medicine in Madaya. At least 13 others have been killed by sniper fire and land mines, which the observatory said were planted by the regime and Hezbollah forces along the outskirts of the town, as they were trying to leave in search for food.
Mahmoud, 23, who lives in Madaya told MEMO that he has not eaten a proper meal in months. “There is nothing left to eat in Madaya but tree leaves.” Prices of what food is available in the town have spiralled out of control, with one kilogrammes of rice costing more than $100, he explained. A photograph shared on social media showed a car for sale in exchange for ten kilogrammes of rice or five kilogrammes of baby milk. The worsening winter weather, which has seen temperatures dropped to five degrees below zero, has further exasperated the situation, he explained.
Raed Bourhan, an English teacher and fixer for the Times told MEMO that he lived under siege in Al-Zabadani for three years before he left to Beirut where he now lives with his wife. “It was still nothing like the siege of Madaya,” he said. Bourhan’s relatives and friends in Madaya are among some 40,000 civilians who have been forced to boil and eat grass and tree leaves as food and supplies run scarce. In extreme desperation, some residents have also resorted to eating insects and cats to survive.
Also read: 31 civilians die in Syrian regime siege
A rare deal allowing for a six-month ceasefire was reached between government and opposition fighters in September last year, under UN mediation. The deal allowed for the delivery of humanitarian aid to be facilitated and rebel fighters to be allowed to withdraw from Al-Zabadani to Idlib in the north, and in return rebels in Idlib would allow for the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the government-held Shia towns of Foua and Kefraya, which are currently under rebel siege.
A first delivery of aid took place and some 450 fighters and civilians were evacuated in December from Al-Zabadani, Foua, and Kefraya as per the agreement. However, there have been no subsequent aid deliveries to Madaya and, while government forces for air-dropping supplies to the residents of Foua and Kefraya, opposition forces are unable to bring similar relief to Madaya and Al-Zabadani.
Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross who entered Madaya during the last aid delivery, told AFP that the situation was so dire that mothers could not lactate. “They are malnourished, they are scared. There is no way to feed newborns and the young babies.”
What is seen by pro-regime forces as an attempt to pressure opposition fighters in the nearby town of Al-Zabadani constitutes a humanitarian catastrophe whereby thousands of people are slowly starving to death.
“Unless aid reaches the town in the next few days, there will be mass graves in Madaya,” Times fixer Bourhan warned, saying the only solution to curb the mounting death toll is “an international effort to put pressure on governments and the UN to unite and take the necessary measures that can put pressure on the Assad regime and Hezbollah to break the siege.”