Despite Aid Deliveries, Besieged Syrians in Madaya Starving to Death
Report from Physicians for Human Rights and Syrian American Medical Society shows deteriorating health conditions in Syrian town
Civilians in Syria’s besieged town of Madaya are dying from malnutrition, starvation, and other preventable diseases, according to a new report published today by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). The report,“Madaya: Portrait of a Syrian Town under Siege,” shows that the Syrian government’s stranglehold on the town of 40,000 – and the international community’s continued failure to provide sufficient lifesaving aid – has led to scores of preventable deaths over the past year.
“Last year, unspeakable images of Madaya’s suffering emerged in the media, and we hoped that would trigger action to finally bring lifesaving aid into the town,” said PHR’s Elise Baker, one of the report’s lead authors. “But UN humanitarian convoys that finally reached Madaya failed to provide the population with enough food, medicine, and medical equipment. Dozens of Madaya’s residents died because of these failures. And each day under siege brings the rest of Madaya’s population one day closer to death.”
Syrian government and allied forces have surrounded Madaya since July 2015 – exactly a year ago – cutting off access to virtually all outside food and medical supplies. Today’s PHR/SAMS report shows that from the start of the siege through May 2016, 86 people in the town have died from preventable deaths, including 65 from malnutrition and starvation. Since the beginning of the year, four humanitarian aid convoys have been granted access to the town – more than to any other besieged area in the same period – but none included adequate food or medical aid.
“Those who have perished in Madaya could have been saved if they’d had enough food, medicine, and other critical medical supplies,” said Ahmad Tarakji, MD, president of SAMS. “Instead of being killed by barrel bombs, the civilians of Madaya are dying slow deaths from starvation and disease. Where is the outrage? When do we say enough is enough? Intentionally cutting off aid to civilians is a war crime. These sieges have to stop.”
International groups estimate that approximately one million Syrians are living under siege, the majority encircled by Syrian government forces. Syrian authorities require aid agencies to request access into besieged areas and wait for approval to deliver supplies, but those authorities frequently ignore or deny such requests. What’s more, forces at checkpoints often arbitrarily turn away convoys or strip them of vital medical and food aid, even if these contents have been previously approved by the Syrian government.
According to today’s PHR/SAMS report, Syrian forces removed kits meant to treat childhood malnutrition from a convoy headed to Madaya in February. Subsequently, at least two children starved to death: an eight-year-old boy and six-month-old girl.
The siege has also severely limited emergency medical evacuations. As a result, the few health professionals remaining in the town – two dentistry students and a veterinarian – are left to treat traumatic injuries and chronic diseases for the entire town’s population. With little training and few resources, they are forced to perform amputations and other intensive surgeries aided only by mobile phone communication with physicians outside Syria.
“What do we expect two dentistry students, a veterinarian, and a field hospital to do for these cases, each one in need of specialized care?” said Dr. Darwish, one of the dentistry students currently treating patients in Madaya who spoke to PHR and SAMS for the report. “We are in an impossible situation.”
The UN Security Council – along with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – has demanded unencumbered access for aid convoys. Other UN officials have recognized that the use of starvation as a weapon of war constitutes a war crime. Yet today’s report shows adequate aid is still being denied to Syrians in need.
“Doctors in Syria’s besieged areas are reporting diseases they’ve never seen, medical emergencies that only happen in places with severe famine,” said PHR’s Baker. “Children are dying of starvation an hour from warehouses filled with food aid in Damascus. If they survive, they’re likely to be relegated to a life of chronic disease because they are so malnourished.”
PHR and SAMS call for an immediate end to sieges across Syria and demand free, unconditional access for aid convoys. As a last resort, both organizations urge the UN Security Council to authorize humanitarian air drops, aid bridges, or air lifts as needed, and they demand that all besieging parties be held accountable for their use of siege as a tactic of war, a violation of international humanitarian law.