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Sieges in Syria: Babies starving to death

Israa al-Masri was still a toddler when she lost her battle to cling to life. But the image of her face, pictured just minutes before she finally succumbed to starvation, is becoming the symbol of a wider nightmare.

For Israa, tongue swollen, wearing a chunky sweater and woolen hat that seem more substantial than she is, was just one of thousands of Palestinian refugees trapped and starving in Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus.

FERNANDE VAN TETS published in The Independent this Jan. 16, 2014:

Innocent, starving, close to death: One victim of the siege that shames Syria

 
Months of encirclement by the Syrian army has cut off the 18,000 people in Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp from supplies and medical aid, reducing them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and instant noodles and leaves

Beirut: Once Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, Yarmouk has been under siege for almost a year. Most of its 160,000 population fled following violent clashes in December 2012, but at least 18,000 have remained, and months of encirclement by the Syrian army, cut off from supplies and medical aid, have reduced them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and and leaves.

Women are shot at by snipers as they try to gather plants to feed their children. Israa is one of at least 50 to have died from hunger-related causes since October.

“The people are now eating grass and have started to eat cat and dog meat as a routine meal,” says Qais Saed, 26, whose last meal was 3 days ago and consisted of water with some spices. He cannot recall the last time he was not hungry.

Pro-Assad Palestinian factions blame the presence of 2,500 rebel fighters in the camp for the length of the siege.

Sheikh Mohamed Abu Khair, the imam of the camp’s Palestine mosque, sanctioned the eating of cats, donkeys and dogs in a fatwa in October after four people had died from malnutrition. That number has now risen to at least 50, says the Action Group for Palestine.

According to our figures somebody is dying daily now,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher at Amnesty International.

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk (AP)

A local nurse told the organisation that since mid-November last year, when government forces took control of an area near the camp, several civilians, mainly women, have been killed by snipers while foraging for food in nearby fields.

“Every day we receive around 4 people who were shot by snipers while they were picking plants in the fields. The women say they prefer to risk their own lives to spare the children.

“On one occasion, we received a teenager, probably aged 16 or 17, who was shot dead. His father started talking to him and said: ‘You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your siblings.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Residents have recounted a scene of devastation and desperation inside the camp, which was originally built in 1957 to house thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Over time it turned into a bustling residential area, with Syrian as well as Palestinian inhabitants. But today it’s a far cry from the packed restaurants of downtown Damascus, just five miles away.

“There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin,” Umm Hassan, a 27-year-old resident and the mother of two toddlers, told the Associated Press on Monday.

Videos uploaded to YouTube show angry and desperate residents venting their frustration. “We are tired; there is no food,” says one woman. Another holds up a bag full of leaves which is the only food she has to feed her four children.

“Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” says Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Palestinian agency UNRWA.

People are so desperate that some are reportedly shedding family members in order to conserve resources. “One father threw his daughter on the street; we found the baby in the street,” says Abu Muhamed, 24 and an activist, who took the child to hospital. “People feel that psychologically they can do nothing.”

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there (AP)

Reports of robbery, primarily of food, are rife. Contacting people inside the camp is difficult, as sustained electricity cuts have been plaguing the camp for nine months. There is also little water or heating.

“Residents are having to rely on going out on to terraces and burning furniture and branches to warm themselves in the open because wood fires cannot be resorted to indoors. There is a very infrequent supply of tap water – reportedly available for four hours only at intervals of three days,” says Mr Gunness.

The lack of electricity in the camp is also affecting the single hospital that is still in operation, which has in addition run out of supplies. The absence of medical care has led to several women dying in childbirth.

As a result of severe malnutrition, residents, especially children, are now affected by diseases such as anaemia, rickets, and kwashiorkor [a disease of malnutrition related to protein deficiency]. The camp has also not been able to receive vaccines, most notably for polio. That disease has returned to Syria after having been eradicated more than a decade ago.

An UNRWA aid convoy carrying 10,000 polio vaccines and food for 6,000 people was forced to turn back as it tried to enter the camp on Monday, after its Syrian army security detail was repeatedly shot at.

Despite the north area of the camp being easier to enter – as it is held by the regime – the Syrian government withheld permission, citing security fears. This forced the convoy to use the southern entrance and pass through some 10 miles of contested territory.

Residents suspect that opposition fighters viewed the presence of regime troops, including a bulldozer clearing the road for the 6-truck convoy, as a provocation. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is “utterly unacceptable”.

The Foreign Office added that it will be pushing for the “lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations and the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities and respect for international humanitarian law”.

Adding to Yarmouk’s misery, at least four  people were killed in a barrel bomb attack. “The people were saying, if they can’t enter with food, maybe they can send it by plane. But what [Assad] sent was a bomb,” said Qais Saed.

Activists say around 1,000 people descended on the northern gate following the attack, but were stopped by sniper fire, in which one person died. The Independent couldn’t independently verify this claim.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s bitter civil war since 2011 and millions more have fled the country.

The Syrian government is due to sit down with the opposition in Geneva on 22 January  in what would be the first face-to-face peace talks between the two sides. Many have questioned how effective the talks will be, however, with many opposition groups boycotting them.

The agreement to allow the aid convoys to enter the areas was announced in Paris by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who are working to broker an end to the bloody civil war.

There is no sign, however, that help is close to arriving in Yarmouk.

“Why don’t they kill us with chemicals? It would be done in a few minutes. It’s better than this way,” said Abu Muhamed, an activist.

Syria images of starvation: Verifying the truth

The factors preventing food and medical aid from getting into the Yarmouk camp also make it unusually hard to verify reports and pictures coming out of it.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has spoken of “profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care”, and numerous sources confirm the severity of conditions in the camp.

But the only visual evidence of these conditions comes from within the camp – from videos posted on YouTube to images posted on Twitter or, in some cases, photographs sent directly to journalists. The suppliers are usually activists.

The image of Israa al-Masri (above), and of a funeral for other victims of the siege, were provided to an Associated Press (AP) reporter by the activist group Palestinians of Syria.

The Independent spoke to the AP reporter, who said they had spoken to the person in the activist group who supplied a number of pictures from within Yarmouk camp, including the picture of Israa, whose image also appears in a separate YouTube video, which The Independent has seen.

Medical advice received by The Independent supports the view that the child identified as Israa does show signs of being “severely malnourished”.

Given the weight of evidence of extreme hunger within Yarmouk, there is no particular reason to doubt the authenticity of other images such as the one above, which is also taken from footage supplied by an activist group, and featured by Al Jazeera.

But despite rigorous checks, there is still no sure way of verifying them.

How prison system in Syria coping? How detainees are handled?
 
Occasionally, a few former prisoners would relate the process of torture and detention they had to submit to. Most often, much of the account could not be independently verified, ask the Iraqi prisoners in Abu Gharib (Iraq), guarded and supervised by the US units. In any case, a few cases of mishandling and brutality is far than enough to raise outcries on failing to observe the UN charter on human rights.
  •  Syrian rebels, government trade blame for Homs killings 
I have posted one such account, and what follow is an article reported from Aleppo, Syria:

“Al Deen (middle name and 30 of age) occasionally let out a goofy, drawn-out laugh when he recalled some of the absurdities he had witnessed during his three months of torture and humiliation in Syria’s brutal prisons.  Like the blind man accused of being a sniper. The sightless prisoner was subjected to a month of interrogation and beatings before intelligence officers finally concluded that he was in fact blind and released him.

Al Deen, originally from the area of Jabal Zawiya in the northwestern province of Idlib, began attending antigovernment demonstrations in April, not long after the uprising against Assad began. Soon he was posting protest videos online and organizing meetings in his apartment in Aleppo’s Salahuldeen neighborhood.

On a mid-July morning, he awoke to knocking at the door and faced 30 security officers toting Kalashnikov rifles. Al Deen thus began his sojourn through Assad’s prison system, being shuttled from Aleppo to Damascus to Homs and back again, often being held below ground, sometimes in isolation, sometimes with others, always facing beatings, interrogation and torture.

Al Deen grimaced when he talked about the teenager from the southern province of Dara who had been shot three times, in his shoulder, chest and hand, and was given only a sling — no treatment or pain medication. “I swear when he moaned in pain the walls would cry for him.”

In a recent interview, Al Deen described a regimen of torture and beatings during his imprisonment last year, providing a glimpse of a detention apparatus that has imprisoned tens of thousands since the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted last March, 2011.

Fellow activists confirmed that Al Deen had been detained, but much of his account could not be independently verified. However, his description of captivity jibes with reports gathered by human rights groups.

In an August report, Amnesty International examined the cases of 88 prisoners, including 10 children, believed to have died while in detention. In at least 52 of the cases, torture or other ill-treatment probably caused or contributed to their deaths, Amnesty concluded. The bodies bore signs of burns, blunt force injuries, whipping and slashes.

Even estimating the number of Syrian detainees is difficult. The government gives no official accounting, and many prisoners are held incommunicado. Families often have no idea whether they are alive or dead. New security sweeps have followed periodic amnesty of prisoners, keeping the system in constant flux.

Human rights groups have obtained the names of about 17,000 detainees, but that probably accounts for only 50% of those held, said Neil Sammonds, a researcher with Amnesty.

For a follow-up report in February, Sammonds spoke with former detainees who recounted some of the same torture methods that Al Deen detailed, including the shabeh, being hung by the hands.

Al Deen said he was first taken to a military security branch, the building that months later would be blown up in twin bombings in Aleppo. Within a few hours of arrival, Al Deen was hanging from the ceiling by handcuffs, his toes just grazing the ground. He was left in that position for 14 hours the first time.

When he would shift his weight down slightly to relieve his feet, the handcuffs would cut deeper into his wrists. Standing on his toes to take pressure off his wrists would send excruciating pain shooting through his feet and legs.

“Are your hands more important than your feet? Are your feet more important than your hands? You don’t know what to do,” he said.

When he was taken down he was put into a room and ordered to kneel. He was blindfolded but said he could sense several men circling him. One asked Al Deen a question and, before he had finished his answer, the others began pummeling him with fists and sticks. The pattern was repeated over and over, he said.

In his first days in Aleppo, Al Deen was accused of orchestrating explosions and arson and taking part in armed resistance at a time when Aleppo was calm and mostly unengaged in the uprising.” End of quote


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