The person who spoke these words was in Yarmouk, a camp in Syria’s capital, Damascus, besieged for two years by the Syrian government, causing a reported 200 people to die of hunger. In nearby Madaya, 40,000 people have been denied any assistance since October. Images of emaciated Syrians – reminiscent of the images we saw in Srebrenica, and we all know how that ended – have emerged over the past week; images of children forced to survive on rotting leaves and water with spices in, their skin stretched thin over their young bones, their mothers helpless.
As a former aid worker and a close observer of what happened in Bosnia, we are used to seeing suffering. But what is happening in Madaya matches the worst the world has seen in recent years.
The UN estimates that 400,000 people have been systematically denied food, medicine and water in medieval siege conditions in Syria: the real figure is probably nearer to one million. Meanwhile the Syrian Government plays grandmothers footsteps with the international community: besiege a city, wait for the political pressure to build, make limited or phoney concessions, and then, when everyone has lost interest, continue as before. Last year the UN made 91 requests of the Syrian government to secure humanitarian access across conflict lines. Less than a third of those have been approved. In total, only 13 cross-line convoys were completed.
It is in this context that we should view the UN aid convoy heading for Madaya. Even if the Syrian Government is serious this time about allowing the convoy through, there will be many armed groups on the way who can stop it, or insist on a price for letting it pass – just as happened when the UN did this to relieve starving communities in Bosnia. The UN and the British Government must keep up the pressure and break these sieges and pressure EU partners to join in. Only if we do this can we save the lives of those in Madaya, but also the hundreds of thousands of others in less high-profile hell holes. Negotiating an alternative air route to supplement – or if necessary replace – the land route to get aid to Madaya is a very effective way of keeping that pressure up.
Some argue that flying aid in is too dangerous because this is Syrian airspace and Assad has sophisticated Russian air defence systems. The answer to this is simple: pressure Russia to agree to the airdrops and get their Syrian friends to do so too. It will be difficult for Russia to refuse in the face of the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes in Madaya. Who knows, in Putin’s push to build international support, he may even want to join in.
We faced the same problems when the US flew life saving airdrops into Srebrenica, where the Serbs also had Russian air defence missiles in place. We didn’t let it stop us then and it shouldn’t now.
Britain is the second largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the UN Syria appeal – something we should be proud of. The Government was also instrumental in getting Security Council backing for the UN to deliver aid across conflict lines and across Syria’s borders to get to all those who need it. The job is not yet done.
The UN “welcomed” Thursday’s announcement that aid would get into Madaya. Humanitarian aid is not a luxury. It is a right, enshrined in international law, reiterated in numerous Security Council Resolutions. The legal mandate is there. Humanitarians must use it. In the unnecessary days of negotiation between the Syrian Government giving permission and the UN trucks moving, more people have died.
Next month, the UK will host a conference on aid for Syrian refugees and protection for those still in Syria. This is an invaluable opportunity to galvanise support for the millions affected by the Syria conflict. That conference will be a sham if it is not able to offer hope for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under siege in Syria.
The means are there, the legal case is clear, the humanitarian need is overwhelming and so is the public support – all that is lacking is the political will.
If we could do it for the starving in besieged Srebrenica and again for the besieged Yassidis in northern Iraq, there should be no reason it cannot be done for those suffering and dying, in besieged Madaya.
There is no time to waste.