Middle East

Madaya: 'Horrifying conditions' in besieged Syrian town

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Media captionMadaya residents described their struggle to survive in the besieged town

A senior UN official says the suffering in the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya is the worst he has witnessed during the country's brutal civil war.

UN refugee agency representative Sajjad Malik found "horrifying conditions" while delivering food overnight for the 40,000 people trapped there.

Doctors estimate there are 300 to 400 people who are severely malnourished.

The UN hopes to deliver further aid to Madaya as well as two northern towns besieged by rebels, Foah and Kefraya.

The World Health Organization has urged Syria's government to allow its mobile health clinics into Madaya.

'People, but no life'

Madaya, in the mountains 25km (15 miles) north-west of Damascus, has been besieged for six months by government forces and their allies in Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.

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Media captionLyse Doucet reports there was joy and relief as aid arrived

On Monday afternoon, after negotiating several checkpoints on the road from the capital, aid lorries from the UN, International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent were allowed into the town for the first time since October.

But it was not until Tuesday morning that all 47 lorries discharged their cargos, comprising 250 tonnes of food - including rice, wheat flour, vegetable oil, salt, sugar, canned foods, beans and lentils - and 7.8 tonnes of medical supplies.

After returning to Damascus, Mr Malik told journalists in Geneva by telephone that the situation in Madaya was horrifying. There was no light, it was very cold, and the people who gathered around the lorries were very frail, very weak, malnourished and shivering, he said.

Towns under siege

March 2015: Foah and Kefraya in Idlib province are besieged by rebel groups and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, with an estimated 12,500 trapped.

July 2015: Madaya, near Damascus, is besieged by government forces and their allies in Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.

September 2015: The situation in Foah and Kefraya worsens after the fall of a nearby government air base, where helicopters had been able to land with food supplies. Reports emerge of people eating grass to survive.

October 2015: UN delivers one month's supply of food rations for 20,000 people in Madaya.

December 2015: Dozens of wounded civilians and fighters evacuated from Foah, Kefraya, Zabadani and Madaya. Reports begin to emerge of people starving in Madaya.

January 2016: UN says it has received credible reports of people dying of starvation in Madaya

UN staff were told repeatedly that 1kg (2.2lbs) of rice cost $300 (£208) while starving children said they were going out collecting grass with which to make soup, despite several having been hurt by exploding landmines.

Mothers of babies were also too malnourished and dehydrated to produce breast milk, meaning their children had to be fed with water, herbs and tomato puree.

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Media captionSyrian artists are producing cartoons showing who they hold responsible for the situation in Madaya

Mr Malik found people on the floor of the makeshift medical clinic in Madaya and not enough staff. One of the three doctors there, who had himself been injured with shrapnel, said 300 to 400 people were severely malnourished.

"There is no comparison in what we saw in Madaya," Mr Malik said.

"There are people in Madaya, but no life. What we saw in Madaya should not happen in this century. We want to make sure the siege is lifted and this is not a one-off."

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Image caption The UN said there was permission for two further convoys to Madaya

Mr Malik confirmed people were dying from starvation in Madaya and that the WHO would give figures in due course.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says a total of 28 people - including six children less than one year old - have died of starvation in Madaya since 1 December.

However, Hezbollah denies there have been any deaths in the town and accuses rebel leaders of preventing people leaving.

Mr Malik said there was permission for two further convoys to Madaya, Foah and Kefraya this week, but that co-operation between the warring parties - who wanted on Monday to check every lorry to ensure their cargos as agreed - was also necessary.

"If we are not able to sustain this support to these communities, even this effort... with all these trucks now is going to be another band-aid, because within a month they will run out of food and medicines," he warned.

The UNHCR plans to provide blankets, winter clothes, nappies, plastic sheeting and jerry cans in the next deliveries, to keep people warm and allow them to cook and bring water to their homes.

Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to life-saving aid.

What's happening in Syria?

More than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in almost five years of conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a brutal civil war. More than 11 million others have been forced from their homes as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels opposed to his rule battle each other - as well as jihadist militants from Islamic State.

Why are civilians under siege?

All parties to the conflict are using siege warfare, encircling populated areas, preventing civilians from leaving and blocking humanitarian access in an attempt to force opponents to surrender. Shortages of food, water, medicine, electricity and fuel have led to malnutrition and deaths among vulnerable groups.

Where are the sieges?

Government forces are besieging various locations in the eastern Ghouta area, outside Damascus, as well as the capital's western suburb of Darayya and the nearby mountain towns of Zabadani and Madaya. Rebel forces have encircled the villages of Foah and Kefraya in the northern province of Idlib, while IS militants are besieging government-held areas in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour.

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