‘An Open-Air Prison’: UN Aid Reaches Starving, Freezing, Besieged Syrian Towns

Convoys of aid trucks arrived in three Syrian towns Monday, delivering much-needed food, medicine, and clothing to regions that are besieged by competing forces in the Syrian Civil War. The towns of Madaya, Fuaa, and Kefraya all received relief from groups backed by the UN, including the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent.

The town of Madaya, near the Syrian/Lebanese border, is currently under rebel control. According to the New York Times, since July 2015, some 42,000 citizens of Madaya have been surrounded by pro-Assad forces, trapped by barbed wire, land mines, and snipers.

Townspeople in Madaya subsist on cat and donkey meat and on soups made out of grass, spices, and olive leaves. Some are so emaciated that they are unrecognizable even to their own neighbors.

Since becoming trapped, at least 28 people have died of hunger or malnutrition in Madaya, six of them babies. Five more people died Sunday, 10 more will die without immediate hospitalization, and 200 more may be in that bad of shape within a week, leading a Doctors Without Borders spokesperson to refer to Madaya as an “open-air prison.”

In addition to Madaya, aid trucks reached Fuaa and Kefraya. These two Shia towns are under the control of the Syrian government but are besieged by anti-Assad forces, including a coalition of Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra Front, according to Al Jazeera.

USA Today reports that the last time aid arrived in any of the besieged regions was October. Monday’s 49-truck convoy followed a long campaign the UN fought for “unimpeded humanitarian access” to the besieged parts of Syria. According to a UN report, only 10 percent of those requests were granted in the last year. Many of the requests are complicated by appearances of favoritism for rebel or Syrian forces.

Making matters worse, a vicious cold snap has seized much of Syria, including Madaya. Majed Ali, a 28-year-old opposition activist from Madaya, said that even living on plants and trees is insufficient now. Ali’s weight has dropped from 250 pounds to 176 pounds since the crisis in Madaya began.

“We were living on trees, on plants,” Ali said. “But now we are struggling in a snowstorm, and there are no more plants or leaves.”

According to a Red Cross press release, it’s the nation’s fifth harsh winter in a row.

“Millions of displaced Syrians will spend a fifth bitterly cold winter in the unending Syrian crisis,” the press release said. “Their choice is stark: to bring food for their children or to keep them warm. For most, neither is affordable.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera, London-based Arab affairs analyst Sharif Nashashibi described the besiegement as a war crime, accusing the Syrian government of punishing the entire population of Madaya because of the presence of some enemy combatants. He also says it puts the rebels attempting to hold onto territory under “double pressure.”

“These sieges don’t just wear down the fighters, it also causes them to see the population around them suffering and raises the concern that the population could turn against them,” Nashashibi said.

But, as Nashashibi admits, there is plenty of blame to go around, from Assad’s government and the rebels to each group’s respective backers. Airstrikes from powerful nations like the United States and Russia also make it difficult, if not impossible, for aid to reach those who need it. At least 16 health centers have been hit by airstrikes since 2014, according to the New York Times.

“Besieging Syrian civilians is wrong, whoever the perpetrator… One cannot be selective in one’s outrage over the suffering of Syrian civilians and plausibly claim to have a moral compass.”

An estimated 400,000 Syrians are besieged. The biggest blockaded zone, which was not reported to have received any UN aid, is Deir al-Zour in Syria’s east. There, the Islamic State has some 200,000 Syrians besieged.

[Photo by Muhammed Muheisen/AP]