In the following Q&A, SOS Children’s Villages communications advisor Abeer Pamuk describes what she witnessed while in Madaya, Syria, on Jan. 14. Our team in Syria is working to relocate unaccompanied children in Madaya to our interim care centers near Damascus.
Can you describe the situation you saw entering Madaya today?
Madaya is located on high ground. It was a cold and rainy day and when we first entered the city. It felt like it was abandoned. Very few shops were open and some of the houses are damaged. Yet the city has people inside. There are people there, but there is no life.
What are the conditions like for the people you saw in Madaya?
The situation is really devastating for all the people there, but especially for the children. None of the children I saw looked healthy. They all looked pale and skinny. They could barely talk or walk. Their teeth are black, their gums are bleeding, and they have lots of health problems with their skin, hair, nails, and teeth. They are obviously not getting the food they need to grow normally. Thus, the children looked smaller and younger than their real ages.
Two malnourished boys in Madaya, Syria. About 40,000 people are trapped in the city, which has been besieged since October 2015. Photo credit: Abeer Pamuk.
Children who were born at the beginning of the siege are in the worst condition as they have not had healthy food since they were born.
A girl I saw who is 18-months-old looked as if she were just a few months old because she has not had good quality food for seven months out of 18. I visited many houses in the town where I saw adults and children who looked like skeletons. They have basically been surviving on grass. Some families also reported having eaten cats. A lot of people also died trying to leave through the woods because the way is planted with mines. Most of the people who make that dangerous trip are kids because they can move faster. A lot of people were also giving their children sleeping pills because the children could not stop crying from hunger, and their parents had nothing to feed them. So they just chose to let them sleep and forget about their hunger.
It has improved a little, as people in some of the houses I visited were cooking rice. But people are still very cautious because of what they have been through, and they are afraid to eat as much as they actually should and use up the food they received in case they will not get any more soon. Another problem that people who have suffered from severe hunger face is that even after they have normal food again, they cannot eat it.
The situation in Madaya is obviously desperate, but has it improved at all since the aid convoys arrived?
The future of Madaya and its children is now connected to the different aid organizations functioning on the ground. The aid organizations are the only ones now that can enter the town, help the people, and make an impact on their lives. For as long as the siege continues, these people will need aid.
What do you see as the future for Madaya?
SOS Children’s Villages will work to bring unaccompanied children from Madaya to our two interim care centres near Damascus. This response is consistent with our child protection policy. We are committed to ensuring that every child has a safe and secure home, is protected from violence and abuse, and has healthy nutrition; education, medical care, and can be part of a family.
How will SOS Children’s Villages support the children in Madaya?
It's devastating to see the harm that humans can cause each other. I have seen a lot of things during the Syrian crisis, and I've been to a lot of places, but I would say that being denied the basic needs to live is the most terrible effect that a conflict can have on people. I tried living in Aleppo under siege for a month in 2013 and it was the most horrible experience ever. As one of the children I met said: "You can run away from the rockets, but you can't forget that you are hungry." To know that we are living in the 21st century and there are still people somewhere starving because of a conflict is very devastating. I'm really glad that the food aid mission of SARC and other aid agencies was successful two days ago and I hope it is going to be successful today as well, because the faith of the people of Madaya is in the hands of a world just 100 meters away from them.
How do you and the team feel after today’s mission?
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Now in its its sixth year, the Syrian Civil War has left millions of children displaced from their homes, caught in the line of fire and trapped in poverty