A blockade imposed by the Syrian government and allied forces has turned the town of Madaya into an “open air prison” and led at least 23 people to die from starvation since the beginning of December, the medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders said Thursday. Six of the dead were under one year old.
“This is a clear example of the consequences of using siege as a military strategy,” said Brice de le Vingne, director of the group’s operations. “Madaya is now effectively an open air prison for an estimated 20,000 people, including infants, children and elderly. There is no way out, leaving the people to die.”
The dead include those being treated at one clinic supported by Doctors Without Borders.
The blockade on Madaya, located near Syria’s border with Lebanon, began in August 2015 and has been imposed by the Syrian military and its allies in Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia.
Since a “one-off food distribution” in October, Doctors Without Borders says the town has been subjected “to a total stranglehold siege,” leaving its residents with “little to eat for months.”
In response to the crisis, the Syrian government announced Thursday that it would allow the U.N. to deliver aid to residents of Madaya and two other towns, Foah and Kefraya, that have been besieged by rebels including by the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front. The details of the agreement have not been made public.
The siege in Madaya has been imposed in an attempt to drive out opposition militants. An agreement in September 2015 to lift the siege on Madaya in exchange for lifting the siege imposed by rebels in other areas lasted less than a week.
The United Nations “has received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave,” said a statement released Thursday from two senior officials. Earlier this month, it noted, “a 53-year-old man reportedly died of starvation while his family of five continues to suffer from severe malnutrition.”
However, in a statement released Thursday, Hezbollah blamed the crisis on ”armed groups in Madaya (which) control food supplies within the town and sell to whoever can afford it; thus, starvation is widespread among poor civilians." It claims that the armed groups in the town “use inhabitants of Madaya as human shields” and that "there have been many attempts by inhabitants of Madaya to leave the town but the militants block any such efforts."
Nearly 400,000 people live in areas of Syria besieged by the government, various rebels and the Islamic State group. More than 250,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million displaced since an anti-government uprising began in 2011.