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Syria crisis: "There are people there, but there is no life"

For many of the youngest children in Madaya, the food arriving thanks to aid organisations is the first proper food they've ever eaten
For many of the youngest children in Madaya, the food arriving thanks to aid organisations is the first proper food they've ever eaten

Yesterday, the emergency response team from SOS Children's Villages Syria were finally allowed to enter the besieged town of Madaya in Syria. In this harrowing interview, Abeer Pamuk - a member of the team - tells of people left with no option but to eat grass to survive and children forced to make treacherous journeys through mine-fields to escape.

"It's devastating to see the harm that humans can cause each other," she says. "I have seen lots of terrible things during the Syrian crisis, but I would say that being denied the basic things you need to live is by far the most terrible thing that can happen during a conflict."

Some 40,000 thousand people are currently living in shocking conditions in the town of Madaya. Surrounded by government troops, no supplies have entered this small town in the mountains of north-western Syria for six months. 300-400 people are severely malnourished and thousands of others are starving. 

"You can run away from rockets, but you can't forget that you are hungry" 

"I lived in Aleppo for a month when it was besieged in 2013 and it was truly the most horrible experience. As one of the children I met said, 'You can run away from rockets, but you can't forget that you are hungry.' That says it all really."

Abeer and the team had queued outside Madaya for several days before they were finally allowed entry. During the long wait they met with families who had managed to escape the town. They were told stories of a situation akin to "hell on earth" and they were anxious about what they might find once they were allowed in. 

Can you describe the situation you saw upon entering Madaya today? 

"Madaya is located on high ground. It was a cold, wet day when we first entered the town. It felt like it was abandoned. Virtually no shops were open and some of the houses were damaged. It was like a ghost town, yet there are people there but there is no life."

What are the conditions like for children there?

Young boy in Madaya, Syria
On a typical day, in a normal house in Syria, the sound of children playing and laughing would be all you could hear. Madaya has children, but they are hungry children without the energy to move. They have lost their spirit.
"None of the children I saw looked healthy. They were all incredibly pale and skinny. They could barely walk or talk. Their teeth are black, their gums are bleeding, and they have lots of health problems. They are obviously not getting the food they need to grow normally - they look so small and much younger than they actually are. 

Some of the younger children have only even known life like this. They are the ones in the worst condition - they have never eaten healthily. One 18-month-old looked as if she was just a few months old. It was heartbreaking."

Desperation

One of the hardest things Abeer came across was people giving their children sleeping pills to stop them crying from hunger. The pills let them sleep so they can forget about how hungry they are.

"I can only describe the situation as devastating," she says. 

"People are so desperate that they try to escape the town through the woods and over the mountain. But a lot of them die because the whole route is littered with landmines. Most of the people who attempt that journey are children because they are lighter and can move faster."

Are there any particular moments that will stick with you?

"On a typical day, in a normal house in Syria, the sound of children playing and laughing would be all you could hear. Madaya has children, but they are hungry children without the energy to move. They have lost their spirit."

Why was SOS Children's Villages the only organisation allowed to access Madaya yesterday?

"We were allowed in because we were not there as part of the food aid convoy. There are strict rules that apply to those organisations trying to deliver food - a condition of their presence is that both government- and rebel-held towns receive the same amounts of aid at exactly the same time. We were there to make an assessment of unaccompanied children and other children in extreme danger. That's why we got access."

Can you talk us through what the team's plan of action has been? 

SOS team in Madaya, Syria
The SOS team have been carrying out a rapid assessment of the situation, working quickly to identify those children that are most at risk and need our care
"Today, the team's aim was to assess the conditions of the children. Specifically our focus is on locating unaccompanied children and those separated from their families and bringing them to our Interim Care Centres. We are also focused on ensuring that the children of Madaya get medical aid and milk. 

Our response places the highest importance on child protection issues. We are committed to ensuring that every child has a safe and secure home, is protected from violence and abuse and has a healthy and nutritious diet; education, medical care and can be part of a family."

Has the situation improved at all since the aid convoys arrived?

"It has improved a little - people now have some rice they can cook. But people are still very cautious. They are afraid that if they don't save the food they will starve again in the future. Another big problem is that they simply can't eat the food they're being given: they have been starving for so long that their bodies are not used to proper food."

What do you see as the future for Madaya?

"The future of Madaya and its children is now dependent on the aid organisations that are there on the ground. No-one else can enter the town. No-one else can help the people. As long as the siege continues, these people will need our aid."

The Syria crisis: How we've been helping

4.5 million Syrians live in areas that are hard to reach and as many as 400,000 people are under siege in various locations around the country. We have been present in the country throughout the conflict, providing shelter, warm clothes, bedding and delivering food to over 60,000 families. We have also helped 16,000 children return to school look after over 1,000 unaccompanied children in our Interim Child Care Spaces across the country. 

We are committed to helping children and families affected by the current conflict in Syria, the surrounding region and Europe. You can help the most vulnerable by donating to our refugee crisis appeal. 

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