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Aid workers reduced to tears in starving city
02:40 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

"The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime," U.N. secretary-general says

Second wave of aid reaches Syrian cities of Madaya, al-Fouaa and Kefraya

Madaya has been under a siege in Syrian conflict; rebels blockaded the latter two towns

CNN  — 

Ali was 16 years old and badly malnourished.

Workers for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, met him in a makeshift hospital in the Syrian city of Madaya. The city is controlled by rebels and under siege by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Its people are starving.

The UNICEF team screened the children they found in the hospital. They found 22 children under the age of 5 suffering from malnutrition, according to a statement Friday from Hanaa Singer, the organization’s representative in Syria. They also found six children between the ages of 6 and 18 suffering from severe malnutrition.

One of whom was Ali. And, in front of their eyes, Ali died.

The team, Singer said, was “saddened and shocked.”

‘Scenes that haunt the soul’

“The people we met in Madaya were exhausted and extremely frail,” Singer said. “Doctors were emotionally distressed and mentally drained, working ‘round the clock with very limited resources to provide treatment to children and people in need. It is simply unacceptable that this is happening in the 21st century.”

The starvation here is no act of God – not the result of drought or flooding or crop failure.

This famine is man-made. And it is drawing international condemnation.

The use of starvation as a weapon in Syria is “a war crime,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said Thursday.

“U.N. teams have witnessed scenes that haunt the soul,” Ban said. “The elderly and children, men and women, who were little more than skin and bones: gaunt, severely malnourished, so weak they could barely walk, and utterly desperate for the slightest morsel.”

He spoke after U.N. convoys had finally arrived in Syrian towns to deliver food to malnourished residents.

Ban said the United Nations and partners delivered food to about 5% of people in areas struck by civil war in 2014, compared to 1% Thursday. That situation is “utterly unconscionable,” he said.

“Let me be clear: the use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime,” he said. “All sides – including the Syrian government, which has the primary responsibility to protect Syrians – are committing this and other atrocious acts prohibited under international humanitarian law.”

Opinion: The starving of Syria

The U.N. Security Council held a meeting Friday afternoon to draw attention to Syria’s besieged cities – especially Madaya – and bring the spotlight to the parties responsible.

Kyung-Wha Kang, a U.N. assistant secretary-general, briefed the council.

While the world has been shocked by the images coming out of Madaya this week, Kang said: “Regrettably, siege and starvation as a weapon of war has become routine and systematic in Syria, with devastating consequences for civilians.”

About 400,000 Syrians are trapped in besieged areas by government and allied forces, ISIS, nonstate armed groups and the Al Nusra Front, Kang said.

Mounzer Mounzer, the Syrian deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said the root cause of these besieged cities is “terrorism,” which he says is “fueled from abroad.” He said the government cares about the plight of the people.

The U.S. representative at the meeting pointed the finger directly at the Syrian government, saying it was responsible for the siege of Madaya, one of 12 cities that is cut off by regime forces or their allies.

Aid convoys arrive

The second wave of aid convoys entered the besieged Syrian cities of Madaya, al-Fouaa and Kefraya on Thursday evening, delivering desperately needed food and humanitarian supplies to residents, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for ICRC Syria, tweeted that all trucks in the convoys had entered the blockaded cities, and offloading of their cargo had begun.

“We now meet the families to talk about their needs,” he said on Twitter.

In al-Fouaa and Kefraya, two towns in the country’s northwest, about 20,000 have been suffering under a rebel blockade, said Dibeh Fakhr, the ICRC’s Near and Middle East spokeswoman.

The relief mission is being conducted as part of a U.N.-brokered deal, according to which aid must be delivered in both regions simultaneously, Fakhr said.

Earlier Thursday, the Madaya-bound convoy of 44 trucks arrived on the outskirts of the city, in a mountainous area 25 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Damascus, awaiting word that the other convoy of about 20 trucks had reached al-Fouaa and Kefraya from Damascus, she said.

Read more: How did Madaya get so desperate?

No plans to evacuate the starving

A U.N. source traveling in Thursday’s convoy to Madaya said there were no plans to evacuate from that city the 400 residents whom U.N. officials had said needed treatment urgently. Instead, doctors and nutritionists with the convoy will treat those cases, the source said.

Michele J. Sison, deputy permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations, described a hellish situation on the ground in Madaya in which only two doctors, without a hospital, are trying to treat residents.

Food that is available is sold at “exorbitant” prices, she said. For example, a kilogram of rice costs $200.

“Civilians who have tried to escape or find food have been killed or injured by anti-personnel mines and sniper fire by pro-regime forces,” Sison said at the Security Council meeting.

The civil war in Syria is nearing its five-year mark, with the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad pitted against rebels. The terror group ISIS has gained large swaths of the country and neighboring Iraq.

More than 250,000 Syrians – mostly civilians – have been killed, according to the United Nations. About 10.5 million Syrians have fled their homes – and more than 4 million of those have left the country, playing a large part in Europe’s migrant crisis.

U.N. official: 400 starving Syrians must be evacuated now or face death

CNN’s Lorenzo Ferrigno contributed to this report.