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‘Traders of Death’: Exploiting Starvation in Madaya

Residents in the government-besieged town of Madaya are starving. Many have resorted to eating leaves, insects and pets to feed themselves. Some are now also accusing army officers and traders who have sneaked much-needed food past the blockade of capitalizing on the desperation of the hungry.

Written by Youmna al-Dimashqi & Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

As what little food is left in the besieged town of Madaya is quickly used up, residents have accused Syrian army officers and crooked traders of making dizzying profits at the expense of starving citizens.

“We call them traders of death,” said Ali Ibrahim, an activist in blockaded resort town, which lies alongside the Lebanese border.

The price of 2.2lb (1kg) of rice in Madaya is $250, and the same weight of bulgur costs upward of $200. Baby formula costs nearly $300 per container. “These traders work with the regime. They stored food and waited for the height of the blockade to sell at extremely high prices,” Ibrahim said.

Abeer, a mother of two, said she’s been forced to feed her infant sugared water instead of milk. Her three-year-old eats meals of stewed tree leaves. Her children, she said, are literally wasting away.

Left with few other options, Abeer asked her husband – who works in construction in Lebanon – to pay a trader $1,000 for 4.5lb of rice, one can of formula and 2.2lb of lentils. “He keeps borrowing money just to get us enough food to stay alive,” she said. But debt may quickly force Abeer and her two young ones to return to a diet of leaves and sugared water.

Najah, a 50-year old woman who has lived alone in Madaya ever since her daughter left for Europe, said she sold her last gold bracelet to a trader in exchange for rice and bulgur, but those provisions have quickly run out. “I have nothing left to sell,” she said. “I don’t know what I will do or how I will survive.”

And although aid is set to arrive in Madaya this week, residents worry that a one-time delivery of food will do little to counter months of starvation.

A deal struck over the weekend will permit the delivery of food to government-besieged Madaya and the villages of Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib, which are encircled by rebel fighters.

“Nothing has entered the town yet,” said Ali Ibrahim. “People are saying that the decision may be implemented on Tuesday, but the United Nations is, in some way, complicit with the Assad regime. How can they fight for the entry of food and yet fail to denounce the blockade itself? We do not only want food to enter the town, because it will be gone very soon. We demand to lift the siege on the town and to clear all the mines and the checkpoints. What would tens of food caravans do, if the blockade and the mines that kill people are still in place?” he said.

The siege of Madaya, imposed by the Syrian government and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, has left the area’s estimated 42,000 people with little to no access to food and water.

According to the global charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), 23 patients at a health center it supports in the besieged town have died due to starvation since December 1.

“Madaya is now effectively an open-air prison for an estimated 20,000 people, including infants, children, and elderly,” said Brice de le Vingne, MSF director of operations. “The medics we support report injuries and deaths by bullets and landmines among people that tried to leave Madaya. The desperation is so acute that yesterday people rioted trying to seize the last food available at an MSF-supported distribution point, which was intended to provide for the most vulnerable.”

Madaya is not the only Syrian town in which civilians are suffering from debilitating blockades. Nearly 400,000 people across the country are under siege, according to figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A spokesperson at a local medical center in Madaya told Syria Deeply that 30 people have been killed while trying to smuggle food into the town, “either from mines, or at the hands the regime’s snipers.” He said that 15 people have lost limbs because of the mines planted around the town.

“Our office in Madaya receives more than 200 cases of fainting due to malnutrition every day,” the spokesperson said, although none of the figures could be independently verified.

One single distribution food aid was delivered into the area on October 18, but since then, the siege has tightened into what an MSF press release last week labeled a “complete stranglehold.” The town’s more than 20,000 residents have had next to nothing to eat for months.

“This is a clear example of the consequences of using siege as a military strategy,” de le Vingne said.

“Now that the siege has tightened, the doctors we support have empty pharmacy shelves and increasing lines of starving and sick patients to treat. Medics are even resorting to feeding severely malnourished children with medical syrups, as they are the only source of sugar and energy, thereby accelerating the consumption of the few remaining medical supplies.”

Several groups have launched campaigns in recent weeks to collect donations for the besieged town. But even though groups like the Molham Volunteer Team have been able to collect a sizable amount of donations, delivering them to the town has been impossible.

“In 48 hours, we collected more than $170,000 from 1,360 people from all around the world,” said Atef Nanou, the team manager. “We couldn’t deliver any physical goods, so we instead sent money to the residents for them to buy food.”

With simple foodstuffs selling at exorbitant prices, the money was quickly used up. And due to their advanced stage of malnutrition, many of the residents weren’t able to benefit at all. “In many cases, people have been food-deprived for so long that they cannot digest heavy foods,” the volunteer manager said.

Akram, a 45-year-old father of four, said that without any money to pay traders, he and his children subsist on meals of cooked herbs and spices. “My children do not like it. They almost throw up every time they eat it, he said. “But I keep telling them that this is a delicious Western dish and that they will eventually like it.”

Top image: A toddler is held up to the camera in this still image taken from video said to be shot in Madaya on Tuesday January 5, 2016.

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