As the United Nations and its partners struggled today to gain humanitarian access to the Government-beseiged Syrian city of Madaya, amid reports of people starving to death or being killed while trying to leave, UN officials called the situation “horrendous…ghastly,” and a potential war crime.
They also voiced concern at the “very alarming situation” in two nearby Shiite villages besieged by opposition forces for many months in a country where five years of fighting have killed over 250,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, displaced more than half the population of 17 million, and left 4.5 million people in hard-to-reach areas, 400,000 of them under siege.
Today was the second straight day that the UN has raised the alarm over Madaya, where almost 42,000 people are at risk of starvation.
“The situation in Madaya is ghastly,” Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva, noting that Government forces were preventing aid getting into Madaya while opposition forces prevented access to the two nearby villages, making both sides culpable.
Deliberate starvation of civilians amounts to war crimes under the international human rights law and international humanitarian law, he stressed.
At the same briefing, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Adrian Edwards said negotiations on a humanitarian convoy to Madaya were continuing but no date had been set. His agency would send in non-food items for 40,000 people.
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson Christophe Boulierac, whose agency is also involved in planning the convoy, said half the 42,000 people in the town were children in need of urgent life-saving assistance.
While unable to confirm Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports that six of 23 persons who starved to death in Madaya in December were children, he voiced great concern at the devastating humanitarian situation, particularly the lack of food for children and of basic supplies amid a harsh winter.
The tragic situation of children in Madaya was an example of the dire situation of the 4.5 million people, over two million of them children, living in hard-to-reach and besieged areas, he said.
Yesterday UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria Yacoub El Hillo and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Kevin Kennedy issued a joint statement calling for unimpeded access to people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas, with only 10 per cent of all requests for UN inter-agency convoys to these areas approved and delivered in the past year.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a 53 year-old man reportedly died of starvation on Tuesday while his family of five continues to suffer from severe malnutrition.
Last month, the UN Security Council demanded that all parties, particularly the Government, immediately open routes across conflict lines and borders to let in vital aid.
It also authorized the UN to play an enhanced role in shepherding the opposing sides to talks for a political transition, endorsing a timetable for a ceasefire, a new constitution and elections, all under UN auspices, and demanded that all parties, particularly the Government, immediately open routes across conflict lines and borders to let in vital aid.