Syria has long prided itself on providing affordable food to its people. As the civil conflict drags on into a third year, efforts to provide basic sustenance to the country’s population (both behind rebel lines and in parts of the country still under the control of the government) seem on the verge of failing with millions going hungry. In the worst cases, acute malnutrition is leading to “relatively small but increasing numbers of deaths, especially among small children,” the New York Times reports.
With the advent of winter, aid workers and other experts fear that the number of deaths from starvation could surpass those killed from the violence which has so far taken the lives of at least 100,000 in Syria.
Malnutrition strikes the most vulnerable — babies and children — first. The next to suffer are those with diarrheal diseases, those recovering from wounds or with chronic illness and in need of extra nutrition and those without the resources or connections to get food. Those in the advanced stages of malnutrition can reach a point when their bodies can no longer absorb calories.
“It’s not accurate to say this is Somalia, but this is a critical situation. We have a middle-income country that is transforming itself into something a lot more like Somalia,” as Dr. Annie Sparrow, an assistant professor and pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who has examined Syrian children in Lebanese refugee camps, says. Many of the children whom Dr. Sparrow examined were underweight in their height and weight for their age.
She and aid workers say that a whole generation of Syrian children, both inside and outside the country’s borders and in parts of the country held by the government as well as by rebel forces, face stunted development from food insecurity. The war has directly contributed to this: after months and months of fighting, agricultural production in Syria has fallen. Shortages of fuel as well as flour — and government airstrikes — have shut down bakeries. Inflation has simply made it impossible for people to afford food.
Aid workers and residents say that the Syrian regime is using “siege and starvation” as a tactic, with soldiers “treating the feeding of people in strategic rebel-held areas as a crime.” But rebel forces have also been harassing food convoys and preventing government-held areas from receiving supplies via blockades, according to the New York Times:
Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers and residents say that signs at checkpoints around Moadhamiya and other Damascus suburbs read, “Kneel or starve.”¯ One Red Crescent volunteer said in a Skype interview that a soldier at a checkpoint recently told him that he would desert the army sooner than follow any order to allow food in to “the ones who are shooting us.”
After decades in which food shortages have not been heard of, Syrians are inexperienced in identifying and treating malnutrition. Aid groups have been training doctors to measure a child’s upper arm circumference to assess malnutrition.
There Is Food In Syria, But People Can’t Access It
The real travesty is that food is being sent to Syria but people cannot get to it. The World Food Program says that it is providing enough food for three million Syrians each month. While it can track the food to depots in different cities, the organization is unable to say where it goes from there. Some residents of the Damascus suburb of Moadhamiya — which ran out of meat, eggs and milk months ago, leaving only olives, leaves and greens– say they are surviving on lentils mixed with grass.
The United Nations just reported that 9.3 million people in Syria, about 40 percent of the country’s population of 23 million, is in need of humanitarian assistance. Aid workers emphasize that it is a human rights violation for military blockades to prevent food from going to people in such need. Along with the return of polio in Syria and the loss of educational opportunities for thousands of children who have had to flee their homes, the signs of malnutrition among Syrians suggest more than ever that the country’s children are a “lost generation.”
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