All sides in Syria’s civil war are using food as a weapon of war, trying to starve out their opponents, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
Truth is always the first casualty of war. But nowhere in this century has that been truer than in the civil war in Syria. Man’s utter inhumanity to man has evoked disgust and outrage this week with the scenes of starvation in the besieged town of Madaya, just 25km north-west of Damascus.
Just as imprisoned and ghettoised communities were starved to death in wars gone by, all sides in Syria’s civil war are using food as a weapon of war, trying to starve out their opponents. The message sent is “submit or starve”.
It seems to be of no consequence that the world was supposed to have progressed beyond this brutish impulse, with the UN having stipulated after World War II that the deprivation of civilians of food and medicines is a violation of international law. With the UN now desperately trying to woo the warring factions in Syria to the negotiating table in Geneva, in talks that are scheduled to begin on January 25, it is unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for these war crimes.
There are no angels in this war. At least 15 towns are currently besieged in Syria, holding 400 000 civilians hostage and without access to essential foods and medicines. About half this number – 200 000 are being blockaded by the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in Deir-al-Zour in Eastern Syria.
Ahrar al-Sham has also encircled more than 12 000 people in the isolated pro-government towns of northern Syria such as Foua and Kfarya. There has been far less media attention paid to the suffering of civilians in towns besieged by IS than there has to Madaya, which has been under siege by government forces since July 2015.
The suffering of the civilians of Madaya has been indescribable. The Syrian government contends that the images of starving civilians in Madaya are pure fabrication by the Western media, and that many of the individuals do not even come from Syria.
But the eyewitness accounts from the heads of UN agencies from Madaya itself cannot be disputed unless one were to believe there is a grand conspiracy at the top echelons of the UN to make the Syrian government look bad.
The head of the UN Refugee Agency Sajjad Malik said this week: “What we saw in Madaya should not happen in this century.” He confirmed that many of the civilians in Madaya are dying of starvation. The UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria, Yacoub El Hillo, told of heartbreaking scenes – of skeletons barely moving. “All sides are using siege as a tactic of war.”
According to the World Health Organisation Representative in Damascus, who went into Madaya this week with a humanitarian convoy, 300 to 400 people are in dire need of special medical care. Doctors Without Borders, which is supporting clinics in Syria, has called the situation in Madaya catastrophic. In the clinic it supports in Madaya it says 23 died of hunger-related causes in December, six of which were babies.
According to Doctors Without Borders, before the convoy arrived, 1kg of rice cost upwards of $300 (R4 950) in Madaya, as did a container of baby formula. The organisation has depicted the town as an open-air prison with no way in or out, where people who have tried to escape are either shot or wounded by landmines.
The Syrian regime may have caved to international pressure and agreed to let some aid in this week, but the World Food Programme claims they only have enough food to feed people for a month. The concern is that if this week’s humanitarian respite is a once-off concession, as happened on October 18 when some aid was allowed in and then the siege re-imposed, many civilians will continue to die. The Red Cross insists that it needs regular access to areas in need, not just in Madaya, but across the country.
Madaya’s curse is its strategic importance close to both Damascus and Lebanon, which makes it a vital link between the Syrian government and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. The Syrian government’s argument has been that if any food is let in, the rebel fighters keep it for themselves and sell it to the local people at high cost. It has also argued that the town is the core of smugglers which are involved in trafficking weapons from Lebanon, so if they can bring in arms, why not food?
Surely it is not acceptable that in the year 2016 people are forced to eat grass and insects to survive, or herbs in water with salt. There are even reports that medics are feeding starving children with medical syrup just because the sugar in it will give them energy. This certainly is a situation that should outrage us all, and there can be no excuse that can ever justify such human suffering.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor