When the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), along with his companions, were under siege in Abu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib’s divisions, they had to eat leaves and rocks to survive starvation. Apparently, this scene has repeated itself in our modern lifetime. It seems unimaginable to view video clips and images of people nearly skeletal from starvation.
Unfortunately, 1,400 years later, people are enduring the same struggle in the Syrian city of Madaya. Madaya, northwest of Damascus city, has been besieged since July 2015 by government forces and their allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, who hope to wrest control of rebel-held areas.
However, up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including approximately 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to life-saving aid. The last shipment of aid delivered to Madaya was October of last year.
Residents say that landmines and a government military blockade are responsible for the horrific situation in the region, which is surrounded by mountains covered in snow. As a result, the little food that gets in is smuggled through tunnels and is extremely expensive.
Food is available, but few can actually afford it. A kilo of flour costs about $200, while the same amount costs 79 cents in the Syrian capital of Damascus. With such soaring prices, residents find salt and water their only alternative, if they can’t find stray animals to fill their dinner plate.
Using such a cruel strategy of starvation has became yet another weapon in this vicious civil war in Syria. Madaya’s siege is a military strategy adopted by both the regime and the opposition, in order to put pressure on the opposing side; in the north, rebels are blockading the towns of Kefraya and Fua. In this game of tit-for-tat barbarity, civilians are the ones who pay the price.
Statistics on the number of deaths due to the siege are still not available, but the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said at least 23 people, including children, have passed away in Madaya due to the siege, and at least 300 children are suffering from malnutrition.
Many images and videos claiming to come from Madaya are actually from other conflicts, yet whether this is an intentional propaganda campaign from rebels or just an unintentional mistake on behalf of online activists spreading information they hadn’t previously corroborated is unclear.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) sent humanitarian aid in the past few weeks, finally breaking the siege. According to WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa, the convoy — a partnership between the WFP, the International Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent — delivered enough aid to sustain 40,000 people for a month.
Due to the inherent difficulties in delivering aid over such long distances, along with recalcitrance from both the opposition and the regime, food and other desperately required supplies only just entered Madaya a few weeks ago, with aid workers horrified to uncover skeletal figures so weakened by hunger, they required medics to help them move from their beds.
Madaya’s unfortunate situation has drawn fresh international attention, partly due to images and videos emerging of severely malnourished residents who beg the world for help. Apparently, residents became so desperate they had to eat stray pets or boiled water with tree leaves.
However, winter is here and plants or leaves are scarce. One of the videos shows a skeletal child who swears he hadn’t eaten a meal for seven days. In another video, a woman recounts that she had to feed her 7-month-old baby water and salt instead of milk. Other photos show emaciated old men.
Apparently, the regime and the opposition are also engaging in a propaganda war to discredit the other side; on the one hand, the regime and its allies are accusing the opposition of leaking faked footage of starving Syrians to demonize Assad and his loyalists, and vice versa.
Indeed, it’s been proven that many images and videos claiming to come from Madaya are actually from other conflicts, yet whether this is an intentional propaganda campaign from rebels or just an unintentional mistake on behalf of online activists spreading information they hadn’t previously corroborated is unclear.
According to Islamic scriptures, the blockade that was imposed for three years on Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and his companions was finally broken by the “disbelievers” who were motivated by their humanity, and moved to action as they witnessed Muslims licking salt off the rocks to survive.
More than 250,000 people have died in Syria in the nearly five years of conflict. Major cities have been turned to rubble. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been killed, and perhaps 4 million have fled the country.
Will this siege on Madaya and other Syrian cities ever break, and the situation in Syria change? It has to!
Written by Asmaa Elkhaldi.