On Monday, January 11th, food trucks entered the besieged Syrian town of Madaya for the first time since October. This little known town in the west of Syria, close to the border with Lebanon, was brought to the world's attention after dramatic images of starving children and disturbing stories of people forced to survive on pets and leaves surfaced in the international media. Held under siege by pro-Assad forces for over 6 months, Madaya’s population has been largely inaccessible to aid agencies until this week.
Syria: UN and partners get relief convoy to starving residents of besieged town of Madaya https://t.co/BL4emjT0wEpic.twitter.com/MWVuvRRjvP— United Nations (@UN) January 12, 2016
The convoy of trucks from the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations delivered a month’s supply of food rations for the starved population.
One eyewitness described the desperation visible:
A first-hand account of the UN convoy entering #Madaya#Syria from a @WFP team member. pic.twitter.com/Qp5qWWDFyw— World Food Programme (@WFP) January 12, 2016
According to Ebraham Abbas, a Madaya resident interviewed by the Guardian, “Each family got sugar, 10kg of rice, hummus, green beans, two cans of tomato paste, six cans of beans and salt” - essential supplies that brought “indescribable joy.”
Deliveries also reached the towns of Foah and Kefraya which are under siege from anti-Assad groups.
What happens next?
While the latest arrival of food is a welcome victory, there is still work to be done. 400 people in the town are in need of urgent medical attention and must be evacuated immediately, according to the UN.
And amongst the local population, there are fears about what will happen when the food runs out. This uncertainty boils down to the fact that Madaya’s access to food depends on a truce. Aid agencies can only enter when the Assad regime and those they are fighting allow their entry - briefly pausing but not ending the siege. Aid was already delivered in October, and then it ran out when another truce was unable to be reached.
It took harrowing pictures of starving children to drive enough international pressure to get another break in the stranglehold.
Madaya is a casualty of Syria’s messy civil war. The UN estimates that 400,000 Syrians are currently under some form of siege. While not all of these face the same levels of starvation as the people of Madaya, it is a harsh reality that across the nation food is being used as a weapon of war.
Access to food is a basic human right. Malnutrition has long-term consequences for both an individual and a society’s health. Undernourished children face educational disadvantages as well as ongoing health problems, including weakened immunity which leaves them more susceptible to infectious diseases. Prolonged hunger will only intensify the barriers Syria’s children will need to overcome after the trauma of war.
It is therefore vital that regular aid is able to reach Madaya and other hard-to-access regions in Syria. This will require continued international pressure to end the use of sieges to starve civilian populations, and intensified negotiations to end the conflict in Syria once and for all.
In the words of the Sajjad Malik, the UN’s representative in Syria: "What we saw in Madaya should not happen anywhere in this century, it should not have happened now." And it should not happen again.
Aid convoys were able to reach Madaya because the town finally received international attention. Once the story fades from the headlines, the global community must ensure the people of Madaya do not fall back into desperate isolation.
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