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Starving civilians trapped in this besieged Syrian town foraged for grass and herbs in a horrifying humanitarian crisis only broken when an aid convoy arrived this week, the UN Refugee Agency said on Tuesday.
UNHCR took part in a convoy of more than 40 trucks that delivered life-saving aid of food and blankets overnight to thousands of people trapped inside rebel-held Madaya, where more than 40,000 civilians have been cut off in dire conditions without aid for nearly three months.
At the same time humanitarian assistance in a 21-truck convoy was delivered in the same manner to Foa'a and Kefraya in the Governorate of Idlib to about 20,000 people.
The first four trucks rolled into the town shortly after dark on Monday (January 11) in bitter cold. They were immediately surrounded by shivering children and adults, some showing clear signs of malnourishment and desperately asking for food, according to the UNHCR's representative in Syria, who was on the convoy.
"We were pretty horrified," Sajjad Malik said. "Most of them have not had bread, rice or vegetables for quite some time. They were desperately looking for something while we were offloading cars… kids and everybody around the cars were asking for anything (to eat) … we could see how desperate the situation is."
The aid of UN/ICRC/SARC convoy that got through following a negotiated ceasefire was the first to reach Madaya since October. A local doctor reported that hunger had killed a number of residents, and that 300-400 others were suffering from malnutrition in the town, where food stocks had been all but exhausted, Malik said.
WHO and SARC are planning to do an assessment to determine the number of people suffering from malnutrition in the coming days.
"There is nothing available in Madaya … in the market obviously there is nothing," he told reporters in a conference call from Damascus, shortly after returning from Madaya.
Aid workers unloaded a cargo of food aid, blankets and medicines throughout the night in the isolated community, where starving residents, including children, have been forced to forage for grass – their last source of nutrition – in surrounding areas in the isolated town.
"They have been going around looking for grass or herbs … and they use a bit of spices and make soup. (There is) no real food," Malik said
Malik said that the few meagre supplies of food that remained in the town were being sold at exorbitant prices – with US $300 sought for a kilo of rice. "Reportedly someone sold a motorbike to get five kilos of rice because there is no food," he said.
Two further convoys are planned to reach Madaya in coming days. Malik stressed that it was vital that further aid was allowed to reach the town throughout the winter, as well as all other hard-to-reach and besieged areas that remain cut off under siege.
"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 said. "What we saw in Madaya should not happen anywhere in this century, it should not have happened now."
As the crisis in Syria nears its sixth year, up to 4.5 million people in the country live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the aid that they desperately need.
Image: A Syrian girl waits with her family to leave the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, January 11, 2016. UNHCR/O. Sanadiki/Reuters