A leaked document from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations in Damascus showed that the organization was aware of the existence of famine in Madaya months ago.
Madaya was the worst of all the besieged towns in Syria, relief workers say. As early as October, locals in the town had been raising alarms about the dire humanitarian situation there. At least six children and 17 adults starved to death in December, and hundreds more risked starvation.
The document, which was leaked to the Foreign Policy magazine and published on January 15, show that UN officials knew this — but until shocking images of starving infants started circulating and news media sounded the alarm, it remained silent, reserving alarm for an unpublished internal memo.
The “Flash Update” issued on Jan. 6 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which negotiates aid deliveries, spoke of “desperate conditions,” including “severe malnutrition reported across the community,” and said there was an “urgent need” for humanitarian assistance. In October, community leaders reported some 1,000 cases of malnutrition in children under the age of 1, it said.
But the general public could not have known this, because OCHA classified the bulletin as “Internal, Not for Quotation.”
The U.N.’s handling of this crisis has prompted outrage from Syrian medical and rescue workers, who accused the international body of kowtowing to Assad’s regime. In an open letter published on Jan. 13, 112 Syrian humanitarian workers from besieged areas accused the United Nations of “chasing permission you do not even need” from the Assad regime in light of two U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that humanitarian assistance flow freely, which should have given aid officials all the authorization they needed.
The failure to more aggressively address the plight of starving Syrians, the letter said, had transformed the United Nations from “a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity.”
U.N. officials in Damascus “are either too close to the regime or too scared of having their visas revoked by the same powers that are besieging us,” the letter said. “Those whose loved ones died from malnutrition-related illnesses or a lack of basic medical care will never forgive the [U.N.] staff, who sat minutes away in luxury hotels, within earshot of the bombings.”
The letter was circulated by the Syria Campaign, a nongovernmental organization that launched a “Break the Sieges” media push earlier this week.
OCHA said in a statement to Foreign Policy on Jan. 15 that its priority was achieving a broader agreement to lift sieges all around Syria. “Bringing in convoys of humanitarian assistance immediately to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas is essential, but the priority, and the solution, is to lift the sieges.” (Source: Syrian Coalition)