MADAYA, Syria (Christian Examiner) – Unverified reports from Madaya, a town under siege and surrounded by land mines, say as many as 40 people have died from starvation since December. Children are said to have lost limbs from mines while out gathering firewood and grass to eat.
"We used to say nobody could ever die from hunger, but we have seen people actually die of hunger," said social worker Louay in a phone interview with the Guardian.
While these horrors cannot be independently verified because of the difficulty and dangers of travel in the region, some people from the besieged town are speaking out. Louay sent the paper photographs of emaciated elderly men who had died from starvation.
About 20,000 people around the area of the town of Madaya are in desperate need of food, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reports. The organization has identified 23 deaths due to starvation in MSF-supported health centers. Six of the 23 were under one year old.
"Madaya is now effectively an open air prison for an estimated 20,000 people, including infants, children and elderly. There is no way in or out, leaving the people to die," says Brice de le Vingne, MSF Director of Operations.
Calling this a clear example of what happens when siege is used as a technique of war, de le Vingne described the crisis situation for the medics: "empty pharmacy shelves and increasing lines of starving and sick patients to treat."
For the desperate, starving population of Madaya, even the leaves and grass are now difficult to obtain. "We had some flowers growing in pots at home," Louay said. "Yesterday, we picked the petals and ate them, but they were bitter, awful."
Medics said people who tried to leave Madaya were injured by bullets or landmines, according to de le Vingne.
"Medics are even resorting to feeding severely malnourished children with medical syrups as they are the only source of sugar and energy, thereby accelerating the consumption of the few remaining medical supplies," he added.
U.N. World Food Program (WFP) will soon be sending a relief convoy with enough aid for 40,000 people for one month, CNN reported. Madaya is not the only town besieged by the war that is now in its fifth year.
"People are living off nothing," WFP spokesoman Abeer Etefa told CNN.
Food is extremely scarce and is therefore costly: sugar, flour, and rice is allegedly $100 per pound. Milk is reported to be $300 per quart, CNN said.
"I swear by God, and you might not believe me because it sounds fantastical, I tried to buy some food today, but a kilo of rice is 100,000 [Syrian] pounds," said Louay. "A kilo of rice, bulgur, lentil, sugar – 100,000, 100,000, 100,000. That is if you can find it." That's about $450 (US).
"This is an area that's completely besieged and surrounded by mountains covered in snow, so the little food that gets in is through tunnels and is extremely expensive," Etefa said. The government military blockade and the mountainous region make the Madaya situation even more serious.
AN 'OPEN AIR PRISON'
Unverified photos and videos of starving people in Madaya have been shared on social media. Children say they haven't had a real meal in a week. A mother said her baby hasn't had any milk in a month.
"I can tell you that the situation is extremely critical. We are very concerned by all the information and images we are seeing," Dibeh Fakhr, an international Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva told CNN.
She said the Red Cross could not confirm the starvation crisis in Madaya because it had no people there since its last aid delivery.
In addition to leaves and grass, starving people in Madaya, who have been trapped there since July 2015, have been eating animals including cats, Louay said. People posting video or written messages on social media cry and beg for aid because they say their children are starving.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement: "International humanitarian law prohibits the targeting of civilians. It also prohibits the starvation of civilians as a tactic of war. The UN calls for immediate humanitarian access to all hard-to-reach and besieged areas and for the facilitation of safe evacuation of civilians."
The starving Syrians have called for help with photos and videos. "Here, we no longer call on anyone," said Louay, whose voice on the phone was described as "weakened by months of abject hunger."
"We have called for help so many times and nobody has heard us," he said. "But we want to ask the officials and decision-makers out there, if you were in this position, and your children were dying from hunger in front of you, what would be your reaction to the world outside that let you down? Don't forget to ask your readers this question."