Exclusive: The U.N. Knew for Months That Madaya Was Starving

So why did it wait until January to provide humanitarian aid to suffering Syrians?

Syrians wait on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya, on January 11, 2016, after being evacuated from the town.
Dozens of aid trucks headed to Madaya, where more than two dozen people are reported to have starved to death, after an outpouring of international concern and condemnation over the dire conditions in the town, where some 42,000 people are living under a government siege.

 / AFP / LOUAI BESHARA        (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians wait on the outskirts of the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya, on January 11, 2016, after being evacuated from the town. Dozens of aid trucks headed to Madaya, where more than two dozen people are reported to have starved to death, after an outpouring of international concern and condemnation over the dire conditions in the town, where some 42,000 people are living under a government siege. / AFP / LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — Until the beginning of this month, Madaya was an obscure town in southwestern Syria, overshadowed by nearby Zabadani, where opposition rebels had fought a fierce battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and more recently Hezbollah. But today, as international relief convoys arrive with food and medicine to lift a starvation siege, Madaya has become the focal point of Syrian aid workers’ anger at the United Nations, who accuse the international body of giving higher priority to its relationship with Damascus than to the fate of Madaya’s beleaguered residents.

Madaya was the worst off of all the besieged towns in Syria, relief workers say. As early as October, locals in the town had been raising alarms about the dire humanitarian situation there. At least six children and 17 adults starved to death in December, and hundreds more risked starvation.

U.N. officials knew this — but until shocking images of starving infants started circulating and news media sounded the alarm, it remained silent, reserving alarm for an unpublished internal memo.

The “Flash Update” issued on Jan. 6 by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which negotiates aid deliveries, spoke of “desperate conditions,” including “severe malnutrition reported across the community,” and said there was an “urgent need” for humanitarian assistance. In October, community leaders reported some 1,000 cases of malnutrition in children under the age of 1, it said.

But the general public could not have known this, because OCHA classified the bulletin as “Internal, Not for Quotation.” OCHA had no immediate comment on why the update, leaked to Foreign Policy, wasn’t published.

The U.N.’s months-long silence on the starvation in Madaya is one of the reasons for the disquiet roiling the community of international and Syrian relief officials. Another is its oft-repeated claim that no one siege is that important but that all should be lifted, a goal that appears beyond reach. When Yacoub el-Hillo, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, addressed reporters on Jan. 12, a day after leading the first convoy into the town, he described Madaya residents as “a people that are desperate; a people that are cold; a people that are hungry; a people that have almost lost hope” — but he blamed no one in particular for this state of affairs and made no mention of the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, which in fact is maintaining the siege against Syrian civilians in Madaya.

Instead, he swung into a familiar U.N. litany: The siege of rebel-held Madaya was just like the sieges mounted by the Islamic State or Syrian rebels against government-held regions.

“I am quite comfortable in saying that [it] is the same in any of these settings where siege is being used as a tactic of war,” he told reporters on Jan. 12. This included Fuaa and Kefraya, besieged government-held towns in Idlib province, which also received food deliveries from the U.N. World Food Program, International Red Cross, and Syrian Arab Red Crescent this week at the same time as Madaya.

But Madaya is different from Fuaa and Kefraya. In Madaya, food prices have hit astronomical levels with rice costing a staggering $256 per kilogram, according to information collected by the Syrian American Medical Society. The siege in the two Idlib towns apparently was a lot looser: In Fuaa and Kefraya, rice cost $1.25 per kilogram prior to this week’s deliveries, while tomatoes cost under a dollar, and potatoes about 50 cents each, according to residents there who were in direct communication with besieged residents in Zabadani. Unlike Madaya, where the siege was enforced by snipers and landmines, some goods could apparently still reach the two Idlib villages.

No fruits or vegetables, by contrast, were available in Madaya, where residents have been reduced to subsisting on soup made of boiled grass and at most a fraction of a cup of rice daily.

“We used to have one cup of rice a day; now one cup is enough for four people,” said Ebrahem, 26, a computer engineer in Madaya, who lives with his parents and an older sister. He asked to be identified only by his first name.

“We eat leaves. We eat some flowers. Grass soup tastes great,” he told FP over Skype. “But in winter there [are] no leaves or grass.” As for fruits and vegetables, “we forgot them entirely.” He said everyone in his family has lost 45 pounds.

The U.N.’s handling of this crisis has prompted outrage from Syrian medical and rescue workers, who accuse the international body of kowtowing to Assad’s regime. In an open letter published on Jan. 13, 112 Syrian humanitarian workers from besieged areas accused the United Nations of “chasing permission you do not even need” from the Assad regime in light of two U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that humanitarian assistance flow freely, which should have given aid officials all the authorization they needed. The failure to more aggressively address the plight of starving Syrians, the letter said, had transformed the United Nations from “a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity.”

U.N. officials in Damascus “are either too close to the regime or too scared of having their visas revoked by the same powers that are besieging us,” the letter said. “Those whose loved ones die from malnutrition-related illnesses or a lack of basic medical care will never forgive the [U.N.] staff, who sit minutes away in luxury hotels, within earshot of the bombings.”

The letter was circulated by the Syria Campaign, a nongovernmental organization that launched a “Break the Sieges” media push earlier this week.

International relief officials wouldn’t speak on the record, but more than a few agree with the content of the letter. “Given the magnitude of the humanitarian catastrophe, we have got to be much more ambitious than what we’ve been,” said one senior official at the International Red Cross.

OCHA said in a statement to FP on Jan. 15 that its priority was achieving a broader agreement to lift sieges all around Syria. “Bringing in convoys of humanitarian assistance immediately to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas is essential, but the priority and the solution is to lift the sieges.”

Some of the U.N.’s failures are self-evident. Hillo acknowledged last week that the U.N. had obtained assent from Damascus for only one-tenth of its requests to send convoys of food and medical supplies in 2015.

But some failures are subtler. There’s tension within the international relief community over OCHA’s method of determining which areas are besieged and which are “hard to reach” — a determination that carries weight because a siege that deprives civilians of the goods they need for survival can be prosecuted as a war crime. The U.N. designates Fuaa and Kefraya, where there were no reported deaths from starvation, as besieged towns and Madaya, where there were, as “hard to reach.”

Few in the humanitarian aid community endorse OCHA’s main statistics on sieges, and still fewer can explain them. OCHA routinely asserts that there are just under 400,000 besieged people in Syria, half of them in government-held territory — but the Syrian American Medical Society estimates that at least 608,000 are under government siege alone. Local officials in Syria, cited by the Syria Institute, a U.S. nonprofit devoted to charting the sieges, estimate the number at more than 1 million.

International aid officials have also criticized the U.N.’s pattern of playing down the besieged rebel-led areas and giving top billing to besieged government-held areas. For instance, in a Jan. 7 statement that presaged the aid delivery, Hillo began by expressing concern for the “plight of nearly 400,000 people” besieged by different parties in Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria; Daraya, a town just west of Damascus; Fuaa and Kefraya; and parts of Eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus.

But Hillo’s statement didn’t take into account the dramatic differences in the various sieges. Half of that number, some 200,000 people, live in the government-held districts of Deir Ezzor, besieged by Islamic State militants. There are no reports of starvation in Deir Ezzor. Rice costs $5 per kilogram in government-held neighborhoods — and as little as 70 cents in areas controlled by the Islamic State, said anti-regime activists.

Anti-regime activists from Deir Ezzor also told FP the military airport is still operational and that the regime has delivered fuel to besieged neighborhoods by helicopter. U.N. officials say the airport can be used by helicopters only at night because of the danger of attack by Islamic State fighters.

It wasn’t until later in Hillo’s Jan. 7 statement that he mentioned Madaya — but that relegation cloaked the urgency. As the “Flash Update” published by OCHA on Jan. 6 already showed, U.N. officials were well aware of the incredibly dire circumstances that existed there — a far more serious situation than the other siege cases that Hillo mentioned at the beginning of his statement.

Did the U.N. draft the Jan. 7 statement and allow the Syrian government to rewrite it, making Madaya seem like a secondary issue? “I can’t really comment,” said Linda Tom, an OCHA spokeswoman in Amman, who took part in the drafting.


Roy Gutman, formerly McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

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