Syria Starving: A Family’s Fight for Survival - Live Blogs & Updates - ABCNews

Syria Starving: A Family’s Fight for Survival

A look at one family's fight for survival inside Madaya, one of many besieged towns in Syria.

  • A note from ABC News' Foreign Editor Jon Williams:

    For seven months, the people of Madaya in Syria have been fighting to stay alive.
     
    In better times, Madaya, just 25 miles northwest of the capital Damascus, was famous for its pure, natural spring water and fresh fruits and vegetables. It sits 4,500 feet up on the mountains that separate Syria from Lebanon. Until recently, wealthy Syrians spent their summers in beautiful mansions there to escape the heat of Damascus. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross describes Madaya as, effectively, an open air prison for an estimated 40,000 people.
     
    Since July 2015, Syrian government forces and its allies have besieged the town, imposing increasingly strict conditions on freedom of movement. Madaya’s population is mainly Sunni Muslim. The government in Damascus claims Madaya is home to fighters opposed to the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Chairs and desks in schools have been used as firewood, and with food supplies exhausted, its residents have been forced to resort to boiling leaves and grass to make soup.
     
    Doctors Without Borders says dozens of people have starved to death in the past month in the town, where a single biscuit sells for $15 and baby milk costs $150 a pound. The UN says starvation is being used as a "weapon of war" and amounts to “war crimes." It made seven requests in 2015 to be allowed to bring an aid convoy to the town, and got permission to deliver aid in October. After several more requests, the Syrian government allowed three more aid runs earlier this month. Despite the help, the United Nations says another 5 people have died in the past week of severe and acute malnutrition.
     
    Amid all the horrors of life in Madaya, families are fighting to stay alive. Over recent days, ABC News has been in regular contact with one of them. While they can’t leave the town physically, they can tell their story to the world. Through text messages and phone conversations, a heartbreaking picture of unimaginable suffering emerges.
     
    Before Syria’s civil war began nearly five years ago, their family was like any other around the world. Today, five children – including two teenagers – their parents and their grandmother, are engaged in a daily battle to get enough to eat. They can’t get out of Madaya – and we can’t get in. For their own safety, we’ve decided not to identify them. But they – and we – wanted to share their story. With Syria starving, this is the story of one family’s struggle to survive.

    Editor's note: In our continued communication with Madaya Mom, she
    clarified overnight that she has five children.
    Initially, we were under the
    impression she had four children.
    She has also clarified that a grandparent,
    her mother, is not living full-time in the house, but rather spends many days
    with the family.
    by Meghan.Keneally edited by Rym.Momtaz 1/19/2016 8:08:19 PM
  • A 16-year-old Syrian boy died last week of starvation in front of UN aid workers. Haunting images from Madaya: abcn.ws/235yt0F

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    January 19, 2016

    Today has been a difficult day for the family. They felt ill for much of the night from severe stomach pains and vomiting. The mom says their stomachs are having trouble digesting food since they've been hungry for so long. 

    When we spoke to her yesterday, she detailed their adapted eating habits. 

    Today our one meal was rice and bean soup... our bodies are no longer used to eating, my children are hungry but are getting sick, severe stomach pains from the food because their bodies aren't able to digest and absorb the food because they were hungry for so long."

    When we wake up, we drink mint or thyme tea from the garden - with a little bit of sugar. It keeps the children from being hungry for a while."

    Food is not the only type of fuel that is scant in the area. The city has not had any electricity in the past six months. The family uses their car battery to charge their phone but that is dependent on the level of fuel that they have left. 

    The family told ABC News that a gallon of fuel cost the equivalent of U.S. $8.64 prior to the siege in July. Now, it costs about U.S. $90 per gallon. 
  • A child is screened for malnutrition at a make-shift hospital in Madaya on Jan. 14, 2016. The UNICEF team and staff of the World Health Organisation were able to screen 25 children under five for malnutrition using the Mid-Upper Arm Circumference measurement. Twenty-two (22) of the children showed signs of moderate to severe malnutrition. All of these children are now receiving treatment at the health facility using specialized medical and nutrition supplies that the UN and ICRC delivered on Monday (Credit: UNICEF/Singer)

  • “The people we met in #Madaya were exhausted & extremely frail. Doctors emotionally distressed & mentally drained"
    childrenofsyria.info/2016/01/15/sta…

  • Officials confirmed on Monday a third United Nations convoy delivered fuel to Madaya, as well as two other besieged towns. Fuel has been rare since the siege began seven months ago and prices have increased tenfold.  

    Monday’s convoy followed two aid convoys from January 11th and 14thMore than 80 trucks carried hundreds of tons of food, including baby milk, rice and flour as well as medical supplies like trauma kits and basic medicine. UN officials said 40,000 thermal blankets were also delivered as winter sets into the mountainous town where few people have enough diesel or firewood to heat their homes.

    Prior to the deliveries this month, the only time aid was allowed into the town since the siege began was once in October. 

    by Rym.Momtaz edited by Meghan.Keneally 1/19/2016 11:29:50 PM
  • 3rd UN convoy delivered fuel to Madaya,Foah&Kafraya &food &medicine to Zabadani call to access to besieged.@Refugees http://pbs.twimg.com/media/CZEEV4rWYAAzPoM.jpg

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    January 20, 2016

    After an 11 hour silence, Madaya Mom finally was back online texting at 2:00 a.m. Syria time.

    She had been so ill on Tuesday, and caring for her equally ill children, she had no energy to even text. 

    She had gotten a bit of sleep after vomiting the little food - some rice and beans - she had had, her stomach, and that of her children, still unable to digest solids after being hungry for so long. 

    She was up so early this morning, attempting to heat her home by burning pieces of wood from her closet, she texted, managing to be grateful even in this dire context:

    I’m up now, at 2 a.m. to heat up the house. It snowed yesterday and it’s really cold. So we’re breaking up the closet for firewood. We’ve already used the big dresser. And we’re lucky because we have wood furniture, others don’t," the Madaya Mom wrote. 

  • UNICEF Representative in Syria Hanaa Singer (center) speaks with children around a fire near the last checkpoint before Madaya town on Jan. 14, 2016. (Credit: UNICEF/Omar)

  • The family in Madaya is far from the only group attempting to survive in such restrictive conditions. The United Nations estimates the 4.5 million Syrians are in hard-to-reach areas and nearly 400,000 of those are in 15 besieged towns, like Madaya.

    Here is a list of organizations helping bring aid to residents in those towns.

    The World Food Programme

    This organization is an branch of the United Nations and, as their name suggests, focuses on food needs for those in crisis areas.

    U.N. OCHA

    The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is helping organize relief efforts in Syria.

    UNICEF

    This U.N. program is dedicated to the needs of children and education efforts.

    UNHCR

    The United Nation's High Commission for Refugees focuses their efforts on the needs of refugees and internally displaced, many of whom are in besieged areas.

    ICRC

    The international branch of the Red Cross ensures humanitarian protection and assistance in conflict zones.

  • The glass on this window at Madaya Mom’s house was blown out by shelling. She says the only replacement available, for the lucky ones, was this plastic cover to shield them from the cold and wind of winter.

  • Syrians in besieged cities desperately need aid. One Madaya woman said of her husband: "I don't recognize him anymore. He is skin and bones"
  • Urged UNSC to imagine selves in shoes of parents forced to watch as their children starve b/c of #Assad sieges: 1.usa.gov/1Qmavcm


  • Keeping warm is another challenge residents of Madaya are facing.

    A 50-year-old neighbor of Madaya Mom left his home on  Monday to gather some firewood on the outskirts of the town. Such ventures are particularly dangerous because landmines were planted around the town in September, as reported to the United Nations by locals.

    He went out with two legs and came back with only one. He stepped on a landmine and it got blown off. This has happened to so many people here," Madaya Mom said. 


    It snowed lightly the past two days, with temperatures dipping to the low 30s Fahrenheit at night and diesel prices have increased eight-fold since July. 

    A gallon of diesel used to be $1.44 before the siege but now costs $8.64 and is only obtainable through smugglers.
  • Madaya Mom’s husband took apart their closet and cut up the wood with a saw to heat up the house.

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA; 
    Wednesday January 20, 2016

    Madaya Mom spent another day caring for her sick children, with meager medical supplies. 

    Her youngest is still suffering from such acute stomach pains, she reluctantly sent his older brother to stand in the day-long line at the health dispensary, the only source of medicine in town. He managed to get the medicine but returned home distressed. 

    He came back home very shaken. He told me he saw many people fainting in front him, and kept asking why some of the children were skin and bones, walking barefoot," Madaya Mom said.

    She thinks her son might be having a physical response to the hunger and anxiety, but she’s not sure. 

    [He] suddenly started having a rash all over his body, and in some places his skin is peeling. I have no cream to soothe the itching, I could only use cold water compresses and hope they relieve him. They helped a bit but not much. I don’t know what’s causing this," she said.

    All the pharmacies have closed, according to Madaya Mom. There were 10 before the siege.

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    Wednesday January 20, 2016

    Even though they are trapped in their town, the residents of Madaya are following global affairs, feeling their fate hinges on decisions made at the United Nations in New York. 

    Madaya Mom told us that she had been anxiously awaiting action by the UN Security Council. The Council heard a briefing on Monday from the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura. The meeting ended without action. 
     
    I learned today that the countries could not agree. You cannot imagine how disappointed and depressed that news made us,” she said. 


    I truly feel depressed and that the world has abandoned us because we are weak. It’s as if whether we exist or not doesn’t make a difference for the big powers,” she said. 


    The say they are besieging the town because there are fighters and terrorists here but that’s not the reality. At the beginning of the events a few people took up arms and now they are either dead, fled or are imprisoned. There are no gunmen left in the town so why are we still besieged?”


  • Until #SyriaCrisis ends, practical actions could keep civilians safe. There is no practical reason not to take them: uni.cf/syriaappeal

  • In our continued communication with Madaya Mom, she clarified overnight that she has five children. Initially, we were under the impression she had four children. She has also clarified that a grandparent, her mother, is not living full-time in the house, but rather spends many days with the family.
  • The number of people dying as a result of starvation, as reported through aid groups and international organizations, has continued to rise despite aid convoys being allowed into the town.

  • The war in #Syria approaches its 6th brutal year. The bloodshed continues. The suffering deepens. #SyriaCrisis http://pbs.twimg.com/media/CZRRt4DWwAESuhE.jpg

  • A family of seven in Madaya is living off three aid packs of food a month to survive.

  • We’re working to reach 1m children in Syria, like this 2-year-old girl, with winter supplies. #SyriaCrisis http://pbs.twimg.com/media/CZRfbIOWYAEjMnW.jpg

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    Wednesday January 20, 2016

    Madaya Mom said that the differences between her life before the siege and after are striking. 

    She said that she and her husband owned a plot of land outside of the town. 

    Before the war, my husband was a farmer -- our land was very fertile. We grew all sorts of fruit trees and vegetables, including succulent apples and pears," Madaya Mom said. 

    Most of the residents of Madaya work in farming. Our produce is known around Syria for its superior quality and taste," she said. 

    Now, they are relying on dried goods from aid agencies and breaking down their furniture for firewood. 

  • For a chronological recap of Madaya Mom's dispatches, read our full update here
  • Residents who say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, walk past Syrian Army soldiers as they depart after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, Jan. 11, 2016. (Credit: Omar Sanadikt/Reuters.) View the whole slideshow here: abcnews.go.com

  • Have questions for Madaya Mom? We'll be having a Reddit AMA at noon ET where you can ask any her anything about the situation and what it's like not only living under siege but raising a growing family in such dire conditions. 

    Stay tuned for a link!

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA
    Thursday January 21, 2016

    Madaya Mom describes her five children as vivacious and very different from one another. They all seem to have enjoyed going to school and been bright students. She says they miss going to school, which was completely suspended a month ago after months of intermittent classes

    "Students stopped going because they were so hungry, and so many were passing out. Their teachers and the principal who live on the outskirts of Madaya were barred from entering town so after that happened the townspeople started volunteer-teaching as an act of resistance, but now the school is shut," she said.

    One of her daughters loves to write poetry and her favorite subjects are English, physics and Arabic. 

    Another is the family performer

    "Before the siege, her older siblings would film videos of her singing. Does she have a beautiful voice? Not exceptionally, but she has a presence!" Madaya Mom said. 

    One of her sons emulates his father and likes to act like a little man with responsibilities, but also has an interest in fashion:

    "He loves to take care of his looks. Before the siege he used to buy his favorite cologne with his pocket money! And he had been saving up his allowance to buy a watch he really liked but he didn't get a chance to buy it before the siege started. Now he refuses to spend that money because he says as soon as the siege is lifted he is going to buy that watch!" she said. 

  • ABC is protecting the identity of Madaya Mom so we will not be sharing photos of her, but she is just one of many living in the same devastating conditions. This picture shows people waiting to leave Madaya, northwest of Damascus, Syria, Jan. 11, 2016. (Credit: AP.) For a full slideshow related to Madaya, click here: abcnews.go.com

  • Madaya Mom is almost ready to answer your questions! Here is the link to the Reddit AMA starting shortly abcn.ws

  • The Reddit AMA with Madaya Mom is still going if you have any specifics you want answered! Follow this link:

    Trapped in Madaya, Syria: Ask Me Anything • /r/IAmA

    reddit**My short bio:** In better times, Madaya, just 25 miles northwest of the capital Damascus, was famous for its pure, natural spring water and...
  • The Reddit AMA with Madaya Mom has now closed but we'll be sharing some of the exchanges on the live blog. Here is one:

    Question: It is soon five years since the civil war in Syria started. Could you describe these years from your perspective?

    Answer: 

    This topic always brings out tears before words.

    Three years ago I lost my father to a tragic accident. 
    Four months and 10 days after that, we lost the one who had become like father to us, my eldest brother. He was killed in a car bomb.

    I was pregnant at the time and thought I would miscarry I was so distressed.

    Our tears barely dry from one wound and then another wound is inflicted.

    This July, my youngest brother was killed. He had taken up arms when the siege was enforced but only in self defense, to protect the people of the town from the armed attacks we've been subjected to. The post he was guarding with his friends was shelled. His friends got hit. After he rescued the first one, when he got back to get his other friend, a sniper shot him dead.

    To see the full AMA, click here
  • During the Reddit AMA, Madaya Mom answered questions about the presence (or lack thereof) of fighters and rebels, the role international agencies and aid organizations have played in her family's survival, and what her children think about the future. Read some highlights here: abcnews.go.com

  • A photo provided to ABC News shows a group of children at the last remaining health center in Madaya, Syria, Jan. 17, 2016. See more photos from Madaya in the slideshow here: abcnews.go.com

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    Friday January 22

    Madaya Mom gave birth to her youngest child after the start of the war in Syria. She wasn't sure she would carry him to term. 

    "I really thought I was going to miscarry him out of grief when my father and my brother died when I was pregnant with him but thank God he was born healthy," she said.

    Her father and brother died in 2012, and this past July, death befell the family again, when her younger brother was killed. 

    "He took up arms when the siege was enforced only in self-defense, to protect the entrances of the town... to  protect the people of the town from the armed attacks we've been subjected to. The post he was guarding with his friends was shelled, his friends got hit, after he rescued a first one, when he went back to get his other friend a sniper shot him dead," Madaya Mom said. 

    But the grief hasn't diminished her resolve to shield her children from the circumstances imposed on them as much as she can: 

    "The last few days before the aid was allowed in, in early January, I completely stopped eating to give my share of the little food we had to him and to one of my girls because I felt their immunity wasn't strong enough to face the hunger. I would just drink water and herbal infusions. And still the youngest would cry and tell me, looking at me with his big toddler eyes, 'I'm hungrryyyyyyy' and that really affected me psychologically."

    She credits her husband with helping her stay steadfast. 

    "My husband did the same as well, he also gave up his share so our children had more to eat and would plead with me to eat because the family needs me," Madaya Mom said. 

    "I am very blessed, my husband is a very understanding and affectionate man. His only preoccupation is his family and his work. He's a real homebody. 

    Despite their best efforts though, they weren't able to shield everyone. 

    "In the end though, my other son was the most affected. He fainted multiple times, once passing out right by the bedroom door and hitting his head, I was so worried he had hurt himself in the fall, that day I really lost it. It was before the aid came in," she said. 


  • A photo provided to ABC News shows a young girl who was brought to the last remaining health center for care in Madaya, Syria, Jan. 21, 2016. See more photos from Madaya in the slideshow here: abcnews.go.com

  • 400,000 people live in areas besieged by Syrian government forces, its allied militias, ISIS as well as rebel factions according to the U.N. In addition, the U.N. says 4.1 million live in hard-to-reach areas in Syria.
    The Syria Institute says over one million people live in besieged areas and that the overwhelming majority are sieges imposed by the Syrian government and its allied militias.
    Besieged areas are defined by the U.N. as areas "surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter and civilians cannot regularly exit."
    Hard-to-reach areas are defined by the U.N. as areas that are "not regularly accessible to humanitarian actors as a result of denial of access or due to active conflict, security checkpoints or failure of authorities to provide timely approval."

  • The war in #Syria approaches its 6th brutal year. The bloodshed continues. The suffering deepens. #SyriaCrisis http://pbs.twimg.com/media/CZevnTfUkAA8BnD.jpg

  • Health facilities in Syria must be protected. It's a matter of life or death @HCIDproject @ICRC twitter.com/ifrc_mena/stat…

  • Those with the power to end the #SyriaCrisis suffering should do so now. Share our appeal: uni.cf/syriaappeal http://pbs.twimg.com/media/CZcrxrPXEAITtoe.jpg

  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    Saturday January 23

    Though a truce agreement was signed in late September, a rumor around town about possible military movements by government forces has Madaya Mom worried and frantically seeking more information despite the siege she is under. 

    "We’re hearing that the government troops and the militia that work with them are asking residents on one end of the town to evacuate their homes. We're told there is a plan to forcibly displace the people of Madaya and replace them with Shia people who are supporters of the government... I haven't been able to verify this information but I am very worried about it... the government forces seem to have moved 100 yards closer to the town from their previous positions too... something is up but I'm not sure what it is... it is making all of us very nervous."

    Adding to her anxiety is an incident she says hasn't happened in a long time. 

    "A man was shot by a government sniper. He got hit in the hip while he was on the outskirts of town searching for firewood... this sort of thing hasnt happened since the international aid was allowed in. Things were quiet for a while. I don't know why this is happening now.

  • It snowed in Madaya this weekend. The temperature is currently 30F and Madaya Mom's family ran out of wooden furniture to burn for heat so they've had to buy firewood. “Thankfully I was able to buy 100kg of firewood - it cost us $100. Before the siege 1 ton of firewood cost $200"

  • A baby boy is pushed in a cart because, according to a medic working in the town, his mother, weakened by the lack of food, is no longer able to carry him in Madaya, Syria on Jan. 23, 2016. For a slideshow of life under siege click here: abcn.ws



  • Since the last food and medical supplies aid convoy entered Madaya on January 14th, medics in the town have told ABC News that 11 people have died, some from starvation and others from disease. 

    The Local Revolutionary Council of Madaya, an activist collective, filmed this video of a funeral procession of a woman who they say starved to death despite the limited aid convoys allowed into town. 

    ABC News cannot independently verify this video but news of the death of this woman was confirmed by another independent source and we have decided to publish the video because it is a rare look inside the besieged city of Madaya. 


  • DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    Wednesday January 27

    Madaya Mom hasn't been in touch in two days. She finally resurfaces.

    Apologies, I am really down and depressed. The situation is not improving, in fact it’s getting worse. Right now no one seems to care about our plight. Our situation here is a daily recurring tragedy."

    Winter has now set into the mountainous town, warmth elusive in light of the continued absence of electricity, turning routine house chores tortuous. 

    It's very chilly here and we still have no electricity, even the water boilers are not working so it’s turned dishwashing and laundry into a personal punishment, the water is freezing, as soon as the water touches my hands I go numb immediately. We’ve been hand washing our laundry for 7 months, imagine what it’s been like given that I have five children and need to wash clothes every 2 days."  

    Food, last delivered by aid organizations on January 14th and otherwise only available at prohibitive prices through smugglers, is running out. 

    We are almost completely out of food and we have no way of replenishing. Meat and milk have completely run out in the town. Because of the siege, we ran out of cattle food so we had to slaughter the cattle a while ago and now all that is left are cats and dogs."

    Madaya Mom and her family are desperately trying to leave their home town, without much luck. 

    I used to worry my children would die but now I feel that maybe death is more merciful than what they are going through now." 



  •  A video provided by a medic shows the moment a shell landed in the school. ABC News cannot independently verify it but it fits the events described by Madaya Mom.

    DISPATCH FROM MADAYA:
    February 1 2016

    Schools have been shuttered in Madaya for a month after intermittent classes, according to residents, the siege has prevented teachers from entering the town to teach, and students have been too weakened by hunger and the cold. But two days ago, an uplifting call came.

    They invited school children to attend school again, Madaya Mom said. My daughters were attending today and a shell landed in their school. They came back home hysterical, they saw their friends in pieces in front of them. When they got home they could barely speak at first, they were so petrified. Their teacher was badly injured, and one of my daughter's friends may have lost her leg."

    The teenage girls were so happy to go back to school, little did they know what awaited them, their mother said.

    They won't stop talking talking about it, they are so traumatized and scared, they keep repeating what they saw, I don't want their younger siblings to hear about this horrific event, Madaya Mom lamented. But the girls keep repeating how they had to step in their friends' blood.

    A Medic in Madaya told ABC News 10 students got injured in the shelling today , injuries ranging from fractures to shrapnel wounds. He supplied this video of the moment a shell landed in the school. ABC News is unable to independently verify this video for lack of access to Madaya, but the footage fit the events described by Madaya Mom. 
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