Twenty-five-year-old Abdallah watches the life gradually drain from his body. First he lost his spirit, after 15 days of supplication in Syrian jails where he was imprisoned for having taken part in a popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in his hometown of Zabadani.
Then this former chemistry student lost his home, along with some 20,000 other civilians forcibly displaced from Zabadani to Madaya this summer, during the fierce battle between Hezbollah and armed rebel groups in this strategic town located between Damascus and the Lebanese border.
As of December 2015, Abdallah began to lose body mass. He weighs 27 kilos less than at the start of the total siege imposed by the Syrian regime and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, cutting of all water, food and medical supplies to the town.
Before the arrival of the first humanitarian aid convoys of the United Nations Organisation (UN), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Red Crescent on 11 January 2016, the young man and his parents had been reduced to a diet of grass, boiled leaves and stray cats.
Still, Abdallah only speaks of others, whose plight is worse than his: “Four hundred people are hovering between life and death and need urgent hospital treatment outside the town. More than 2,000 children are suffering from severe vitamin deficiency because their mothers are undernourished and can no longer breastfeed them. Before the arrival of the humanitarian aid, they were being given water with salt to drink,” he told Equal Times through Skype.
“Too close to the regime”
The state of siege, which is slowly killing Abdallah and some 40,000 other civilians trapped in Madaya, is the daily plight shared by some 400,000 civilians in Syria, according to the United Nations.
Other observers set the figure at closer to a million, such as The Syria Campaign, which launched the Break the Sieges campaign, and The Syria Institute, which set up Siege Watch, an online observatory tracking the sieges across Syria.
Equipped with a network of activists and doctors on the ground, the Siege Watch team believes the UN is underestimating the number of sieges in Syria, which is limiting its humanitarian action. The United Nations could do more, according to 112 Syrian civil society activists. The Syria Campaign has published their letter of accusation addressed to Stephen O’Brien, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
“Medical workers, teachers, rescue workers and civil society activists” themselves living under siege in Syria, accuse the UN of being “complicit” in the Syrian regime’s “surrender or starve” policy.
They quote two UN Security Council resolutions that give the UN the green light to deliver humanitarian aid without the regime’s consent.
So why did it wait for the regime’s authorisation to deliver aid to Madaya, when several people had already died? Why is it not intervening in other besieged areas such as Jobar, Yarmouk, Douma or Darayya, where civilians lack everything? “Mr. O’Brien,” the letter continues, “your colleagues 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.”
There are around 900 people currently working for the UN in Syria. Speaking on condition of anonymity to Equal Times, a former-UN employee from Syria, who held one of the top positions in the refugee agency (UNHCR) in Damascus for several years, corroborates these accusations:
“The UN offices in Syria have always had to hire employees referred by the regime. It was the concession it had to make to be allowed to do its work," she says. "But it opened the door to corruption and favouritism towards those close to the regime, and the situation became unbearable when the revolution broke out in 2011.
"At that time, whilst we witnessed security forces shooting civilians from our windows, anyone speaking in the civilians’ defence would be labelled as “opponents” and would be threatened. It was common knowledge that the members of the administration and the security were linked to the Mukhabarat [intelligence service - editor’s note]. I left the UNHCR in 2012, but the few critical employees still there tell me that, now, 90 per cent of the staff is close to the regime,” she says.
The UN has crossed the red line between the need to cooperate with the authorities to be able to do its job properly and pure and simple collaboration, according to the signatories of the letter addressed to O’Brien.
As evidence of this, they point to the fact that the UN office in Damascus published the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 with the amendments requested by the Syrian government, and without duly informing the report’s co-authors – Syrian and international NGOs as well as the UN offices in Turkey and Jordan.
The words “siege” and “besieged”, for example, were removed from the document at the government’s request. Numerous other sections were toned down, as one of the NGOs involved in drawing up the report reveals in a database of the changes, which it passed on to a British journalist from Buzzfeed. It is a way for the government to play down its role in the conflict, qualified as a “crisis” in the amended report, which is the document around which international donors will meet in London, on 4 February.
“We want an immediate lifting of the siege”
On 14 January, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the use of starvation as a weapon was a war crime.
Stephen O’Brien, for his part, published a response to the letter of accusation: “The United Nations and its partners have taken serious and repeated risks to reach people in need, in some cases coming under direct fire from parties to the conflict or suffering the ultimate price. I can assure you that the UN is neither too close to any party nor acting in such a way to encourage the use of siege tactics.”
Dibeh Fakhr, spokesperson for the ICRC, also qualified the accusations against the UN: “In Syria, 60 barricades raised by different armed groups sometimes have to be crossed. Each access to a besieged area requires the agreement of all the parties to the conflict, inside and outside the country. So the lack of aid is not due to a lack of will on the part of the humanitarians but, rather, to the difficulty accessing besieged areas.”
“Yet access is crucial. In Madaya and the other besieged areas, one-off assistance is not the solution. Regular access is needed, otherwise it will not be enough.”
Abdallah fears that the aid will not be renewed and worries at the prospect of “death and starvation”. It does not, however, stop him from looking ahead: “We don’t just want another delivery of food. We want an immediate lifting of the siege. My family has a large piece of land in Zabadani. We could live off the land, without asking for help from anyone. Just let us go back there."
According to the Syria Campaign, another 14 people died of hunger since the humanitarian aid convoys came to Madaya.