With thirty children a day fainting from hunger and food prices up by 300%, the first aid to reach eastern Ghouta in more than a year has fallen far short of what is needed, warns a leading charity.
The breakthrough aid for 40,000 people in the rebel-held area 30km from Damascus was delivered on Monday, days after the UN human rights chief said the plight of civilians living there was "an outrage" that might constitute a war crime.
Children’s charity Save the Children have warned that not enough supplies are reaching those in need and that the risk of more children dying from hunger continues.
The men, women and children living in the besieged area, which has seen five schools hit by airstrikes this month and widespread malnutrition, will only suffer more as winter approaches, the charity says.
“Syria might have faded from the headlines but for many people the situation is worse than ever. Children in eastern Ghouta are sick and hungry, and food and medicine are running out. If parties to the conflict don't immediately allow goods and aid into areas under siege, children dying from malnutrition could become a daily occurrence as winter hits people especially hard,” explains Sonia Khush, Syria Country Director, Save the Children.
Ahmed*, who works for a Save the Children partner in eastern Ghouta, is on the ground in the war-torn region. He has experienced the daily bombs and children fainting in school because they don’t have enough to eat.
“Now the bombing is back again, around a month and a half ago it started with two or three airstrikes every day. During the last year, schools were closed for two weeks in Ghouta due to heavy shelling in the whole area,” he says.
“We are talking here about daily cases of children fainting in school due to malnutrition. Civil defence and International Red Cross are treating six or seven cases in Douma where I live. And this is only in Douma, if we want to apply that to Ghouta and the surrounding areas, the number will go up to 30 fainting cases daily in schools,” Ahmed explains.
“It is getting cold, every day we are coming closer to winter. This is also a tragedy along with the siege, the medical centre. The siege alone is enough. But as we have seen cases of death due to hunger or malnutrition, we will now also witness people dying due to the cold weather.”
Eastern Ghouta is a long-besieged area on the outskirts of Damascus where almost 400,000 people are living.
This week’s supplies were allowed into the towns of Kafr Batna and Saqba on Monday - areas that had not received aid since June 2016.
The convoy of 49 lorries carried 8,000 food parcels and a similar number of bags of flour, medicine, medical supplies, and other nutritional materials.
Aid was also distributed to Hamouria and Ain Tarma and some aid was delivered to parts of eastern Ghouta in September, although it was unable to reach Kafr Batna and Saqba at that time.
“Children in eastern Ghouta are fast running out of food. Its besieged residents have finally received 8,000 parcels of food, but it just isn’t enough to feed an estimated 400,000 people. These supplies will run out in a matter of weeks. More food and medicine must be allowed in to prevent children dying from hunger,” warns Ms Khush.
Save the Children reports that, despite Eastern Ghouta being designated as a de-escalation zone in May, a watchdog reported that on Tuesday 10 people were killed in an airstrike, including five children who were reportedly killed by shelling as they stood near their school gate. At least five schools in the area have been hit by shelling this month, including a kindergarten where children were reportedly killed and injured earlier this week.
The charity reports that as well as children fainting from hunger and having to receive treatment for malnutrition, food prices are regularly tn times those in government-held Damascus and in some cases food is 300 per cent higher. As a result, families are regularly unable to eat as they are unable to afford to.
Fuel is also in short supply, raising concerns over how civilians will keep warm over winter and whether they will be forced to choose between heat or fuel.
Ms Khush says: “It is imperative that the siege of eastern Ghouta is ended immediately, and that all parties come together to ensure that Syrian children do not have to live in daily fear of being killed in their homes or as they go to school. Aid must be allowed to reach people in need so that no child has to suffer the pain of extreme hunger and is left unable to function because their parents simply cannot give them enough to eat.”
*We have changed his name to protect his identity
Listen to Ahmed*’s account of life in eastern Ghouta, or read the transcript below:
For example, one kilogram of sugar costs $0.36 in Damascus, while it costs $14 in Ghouta.
One kilogram of Rice, and we are still talking about basic food needs, costs $0.25 in Damascus, but in Ghouta it costs $6.
As for 1 kilo of bread, it costs around $0.3 in Damascus, but it costs us $3 in Ghouta.
Sunflower oil in Damascus is $1 while it’s $13 in Ghouta. As for wheat, it costs $0.2 in Damascus, but it costs us around $2.50 in Ghouta, this is for 1 kilogram of wheat.
Add to that the price of fuel in Damascus, which is $1.08, while in Ghouta it costs us $14.
Based on a survey conducted by a research center in Ghouta, the unemployment rate is 75 percent and the average household income in Ghouta is $50 - although each family needs an average of $700 every month.
Yes the pace of airstrikes is increasing by the day. After the agreement of de-escalation zones [in late May], Parts of Ghouta which are not controlled by al-Nusra Front, witnessed a month with no bombing.
But now bombing is back again. Around a month and a half ago, it started with two or three airstrikes every day leading to bombing Douma with four airstrikes happening in zones not controlled by the Nusra Front.
Airstrikes are still going on, today Douma was bombed with five or six airstrikes.
In my opinion, we should now focus and direct all our efforts on the medical center and getting food supplies in.
An even greater tragedy than hunger is to be injured and find no medical treatment. This is disastrous and is even worse than being famished with the shadow of besiegement approaching.
Today, there are supplies are here. Merchants with high prices are monopolizing them, but they still exist. Ultimately, however, we are approaching a phase where these supplies will run out even with the high prices.
Yes, it is getting cold, every day we are coming closer to winter. This is also a tragedy along with the siege and the medical center. The siege alone is enough.
But as we have seen cases of death due to hunger or malnutrition, we will now also witness people dying due to the cold weather.”
The most important thing is medicine and food supplies. If the medical center is not supported, people might get injured and they will not be treated. But if they do not get food, they will die of hunger. Also if there is nothing to keep them warm in the winter, they will also die.
Everything is linked together.
Yes, schools are open and running. During the last period, Kafr Batna; a district in Ghouta, witnessed heavy shelling by ground-to-ground missiles, schools were closed for two days because of that in the area.
Basically, schools are running in quiet areas but when an airstrike take place, schools are closed immediately until the shelling stops and things go back to normal.
During the last year, schools were closed for two weeks in Ghouta due to heavy shelling in the whole area.
We are talking here about daily cases of children fainting in school due to malnutrition.This is happening on a daily basis.
The civil defense and International Red Cross here treat six to seven cases in Douma where I live. Every day, there are six to seven fainting cases that are referred to the medical points, where they receive treatment and are discharged. They do not need medical treatment; you just have to give them something to eat and they will be better after that.
But this is happening daily - six to seven, even up to eight fainting cases daily.
And this is only in Douma. If we want to apply that to Ghouta and the surrounding areas, the number will go up to 30 fainting cases daily in schools.
Even fuel, since we are in October, and winter is coming, it’s getting cold nowadays, fuel is nowhere to be found, firewood from Ghouta is becoming limited and very expensive, the situation is very bad.