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"I long for the day when Syria’s starving children run for fun, not from rockets"

Orient Net - The Guardian 2016-01-28 07:26:00

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In the five years since war fragmented Syria, the trauma and devastation of the conflict has spread well beyond the country’s borders, scattering people desperate to escape the brutality across the world.

Yet as devastating as the situation is for Syrians, the toll is especially horrific for the youngest who remain in the country, in particular those cut off from care, separated from their families, or lacking food. The conditions are even more gut-wrenching when you look into the face of the child victims, as I – along with other representatives of international humanitarian agencies – did when we entered the besieged town of Madaya this month.

None of the children I saw looked healthy. They were pale and skinny, some could barely talk or walk. Some had black teeth, bleeding gums; the impact of insufficient nutrition was evident.

The youngest – some of whom were born after the siege of Madaya began in mid-2015 – are in the worst condition, because they have never had sufficient nutrition. One 18-month-old girl, shrivelled for want of food, looked significantly younger.

I visited houses in the town of 40,000 people where adults and children resembled skeletons. My colleagues and I saw one man who looked almost like a mummy; two days later, he died. I found two stunted boys, alone in a heavily damaged house, who said their mother was out searching for something to eat. Their brother and father had already starved to death.

People have resorted to eating grass or cats to survive. Water boiled with spices has been a main meal for many families for months. Those trapped in Madaya are not entirely cut off from the world – they can call or send text messages to those outside, yet help is too slow to come. Some of the adults I spoke to said they don’t care about their own fate, they just want their children out.

Starvation is not the only peril in Madaya and other towns held hostage in this protracted conflict. Children are caught on the frontlines, scavenging for food on mountain sides dotted with mines. One 11-year-old girl told me she would sneak out to fetch food for her family despite the risk. Children, after all, make smaller targets.

In addition to the aid deliveries that have taken place, there is growing hope that children without parents, and children separated from their families, can soon be evacuated to havens.

That’s not enough, though. As a Syrian, I know the toll this conflict has taken on my country. I am from Aleppo and lived in the embattled city – where my mother and brother still live – for a time in 2013. Three years on, nothing has changed. To know that we are living in the 21st century and there are still people starving because of conflict is devastating to me.

Still, I hope that the peace talks that began last year in Vienna – and are due to resume this week in Geneva – can gradually bring an end to this war. As one child I met said: “You can run away from the rockets, but you can’t forget that you are hungry.” I want to see the day when Syrian children run for fun, and never again have to worry about hunger.

Abeer Pamuk in The Guardian