U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared the use of man-made famine in Syria to be a “war crime” on Thursday. He described “all sides, including the Syrian government” as “committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
“U.N. teams have witnessed scenes that haunt the soul,” said the Secretary-General. “The elderly and children, men and women, who were little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk, and utterly desperate for the slightest morsel.”
The Syrian government and its allies have blockaded the city of Madaya, which just began receiving shipments of U.N. aid, for months, according to CNN. Meanwhile, the towns of al-Fouaa and Kefraya have suffered forced starvation due to rebel blockades. U.N. relief convoys are expected in those two towns next week.
The CNN report describes UNICEF workers finding young children suffering from extreme malnutrition in Madaya, including one who died right before their eyes. UNICEF representative Hanaa Singer described the people of the city as “exhausted and extremely frail,” tended by doctors who were “emotionally distressed and mentally drained.” Residents of the besieged city wept when the first convoy of U.N. food trucks arrived.
According to Reuters, relief workers reported 32 deaths from starvation in the past month. Abeer Pamuk, from the SOS Children’s Villages charity, described the children of Madaya as “pale and skinny,” barely able to talk or walk, with black teeth, bleeding gums, and health problems involving their skin, hair, nails, and teeth.
The New York Times described conditions in Madaya in an article last week about the political maneuvers and military actions that made it difficult to bring food to the forcibly malnourished, saying the town was “encircled by pro-government forces with barbed wire, land mines and snipers.”
“People there make soups of grass, spices and olive leaves. They eat donkeys and cats,” the Times reported. “They arrive, collapsing, at a clinic that offers little but rehydration salts. Neighbors fail to recognize neighbors in the streets because their faces are so sunken.”
The U.N. delivered relief as part of a deal in which it committed to aiding civilians in both regime – and rebel-held areas simultaneously. Reuters reports the Syrian Arab Red Crescent convinced the Syrian government to allow it into Madaya, and a vaccination campaign will begin soon, in addition to food deliveries. Until now, the Syrian government is said to have denied 90 percent of U.N. requests to deliver assistance to besieged areas.
Even as food was finally brought into Madaya, the New York Times reports Syrian regime forces laying siege to another rebel town, Moadhamiyeh, near Damascus. Assad’s message to residents: “Surrender, or you will be annihilated.”