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Freezing children starve to death in Syria as aid can’t reach them

Getting access to the millions in need of aid inside Syria remains the UN’s biggest hurdle.
Amina, a Syrian woman who fled the fighting in Aleppo, hides inside an abandoned building on the outskirts of Saraqib, with her sick five-month-old daughter, Asma. Giovanni Diffidenti / AFP
Amina, a Syrian woman who fled the fighting in Aleppo, hides inside an abandoned building on the outskirts of Saraqib, with her sick five-month-old daughter, Asma. Giovanni Diffidenti / AFP

BEIRUT // It is a 15-minute drive from the five-star hotel that houses United Nations aid staff in Damascus to rebel-held suburbs where freezing children are starving to death.

Yet it is months since convoys from the UN and other agencies have delivered food or medical care to many such areas – prevented by a Syrian government accused of using hunger as a weapon of war against its people.

The UN appealed yesterday for a record Dh23.9 billion next year to help Syrians affected by the civil war, but it is getting access to the millions in need of aid inside the country that remains its biggest hurdle.

Divisions among world powers that have crippled peacemaking are also denying UN staff the power to defy Syrian officials and push into areas now under siege.

“In government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated,” said Ben Parker, who ran the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) in Syria until last February.

“According to the Syrian government’s official position, humanitarian agencies and supplies are allowed to go anywhere, even across any front line,” he wrote last month in the journal Humanitarian Exchange. “But every action requires time-consuming permissions, which effectively provide multiple veto opportunities.”

Fighting and rebel groups are also obstacles.

The UN estimates about a quarter of a million Syrians are living under siege as winter bites, most of them encircled by government forces, but also including 45,000 in two towns in the north that are besieged by rebels fighting forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

A binding Security Council resolution could formally oblige the authorities to let aid agencies into areas such as the Damascus suburbs and the old city of Homs, where local doctors say children are dying of malnutrition. But divisions between western powers, who back the rebels, and Russia, which backs Mr Al Assad, have paralysed the world body over Syria since the conflict began in 2011.

As a result, international agencies are legally obliged to work with a government which aid workers say has used threats to deny visas to foreign staff or hinder efforts to help millions of people outside besieged districts as a way of muting criticism and discouraging attempts to break the sieges.

“It is a fundamental flaw in the international system that it is possible for a rogue state to hold its own people hostage,” said a western diplomat who works on aid issues.

“Syria ... can threaten access to its own population and say ‘millions will starve if my instructions are not followed’.

“The reality is there is a risk of being thrown out,” he said. “You have to look ultimately at what the moral obligation is to serve as many as you can.”

As far as Mr Al Assad’s government is concerned, said Mr Parker, aid operations are “a Trojan horse to delegitimise the state, develop contacts with the opposition and win international support for military intervention”.

In response to criticism that they should complain more loudly, aid workers speaking privately cited the case of a UN agency chief who ended a posting in Damascus last year after clashing with Syrian officials over access for aid distribution. Syria had made clear that the official’s visa would not be renewed.

An internal UN document seen by Reuters last month said visa applications for international staff were more likely to be turned down or put on hold in 2013 than to be approved.

It described Syrian bureaucracy hampering operations, as well as difficulties posed by fighting and a lack of cooperation from numerous, often rival, rebel groups across the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross president Peter Maurer said this month that both sides have blocked medical aid to the sick and wounded.

“On both sides we are struggling with the argument that whatever medical aid is brought to one part or the other is interpreted as an indirect military support to the other side.”

Syrians in areas where little or no aid is getting through say they feel abandoned and blame world powers for not only extending a war that has killed more than 100,000 by backing warring parties but also failing to ease the impact on civilians.

Lack of access for independent agencies makes it hard to verify food and medical supplies in many areas. But opposition activists have posted video of the bodies of several skeletal children who local doctors say died of malnutrition.

In September, footage of the body of one-year-old Rana Obeid, ribs protruding and belly swollen, was accompanied by statements from doctors saying she was the sixth child to die from malnutrition in Mouadamiya, about a quarter-hour drive from the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus.

In a country in the grip of a population explosion before the war began, half of Syria’s needy are children.

“The time will come that whatever aid you bring it is far too late and the scars on children will be far too deep to repair,” said Maria Calivis, Middle East and Northern Africa director for Unicef, the UN children’s fund.

* Reuters

Published: December 16, 2013 04:00 AM

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