Innocent, starving, close to death: One victim of the siege that shames Syria

Months of encirclement by the Syrian army has cut off the 18,000 people in Damascus's Yarmouk refugee camp from supplies and medical aid, reducing them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and instant noodles and leaves

BEIRUT

Israa al-Masri was still a toddler when she lost her battle to cling to life. But the image of her face, pictured just minutes before she finally succumbed to starvation, is becoming the symbol of a wider nightmare.

For Israa, tongue swollen, wearing a chunky sweater and woollen hat that seem more substantial than she is, was just one of thousands of Palestinian refugees trapped and starving in Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus.

Once Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, Yarmouk has been under siege for almost a year. Most of its 160,000 population fled following violent clashes in December 2012, but at least 18,000 have remained, and months of encirclement by the Syrian army, cut off from supplies and medical aid, have reduced them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and and leaves. Women are shot at by snipers as they try to gather plants to feed their children. Israa is one of at least 50 to have died from hunger-related causes since October.

“The people are now eating grass and have started to eat cat and dog meat as a routine meal,” says Qais Saed, 26, whose last meal was three days ago and consisted of water with some spices. He cannot recall the last time he was not hungry.

Pro-Assad Palestinian factions blame the presence of 2,500 rebel fighters in the camp for the length of the siege. Sheikh Mohamed Abu Khair, the imam of the camp’s Palestine mosque, sanctioned the eating of cats, donkeys and dogs in a fatwa in October after four people had died from malnutrition. That number has now risen to at least 50, says the Action Group for Palestine.

“According to our figures somebody is dying daily now,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher at Amnesty International.

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk (AP)
A local nurse told the organisation that since mid-November last year, when government forces took control of an area near the camp, several civilians, mainly women, have been killed by snipers while foraging for food in nearby fields.

“Every day we receive around four people who were shot by snipers while they were picking plants in the fields. The women say they prefer to risk their own lives to spare the children.

“On one occasion, we received a teenager, probably aged 16 or 17, who was shot dead. His father started talking to him and said: ‘You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your siblings.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Residents have recounted a scene of devastation and desperation inside the camp, which was originally built in 1957 to house thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Over time it turned into a bustling residential area, with Syrian as well as Palestinian inhabitants. But today it’s a far cry from the packed restaurants of downtown Damascus, just five miles away.

“There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin,” Umm Hassan, a 27-year-old resident and the mother of two toddlers, told the Associated Press on Monday. 

Videos uploaded to YouTube show angry and desperate residents venting their frustration. “We are tired; there is no food,” says one woman. Another holds up a bag full of leaves which is the only food she has to feed her four children.

“Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” says Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Palestinian agency UNRWA.

People are so desperate that some are reportedly shedding family members in order to conserve resources. “One father threw his daughter on the street; we found the baby in the street,” says Abu Muhamed, 24 and an activist, who took the child to hospital. “People feel that psychologically they can do nothing.”

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there (AP)
Reports of robbery, primarily of food, are rife. Contacting people inside the camp is difficult, as sustained electricity cuts have been plaguing the camp for nine months. There is also little water or heating.

“Residents are having to rely on going out on to terraces and burning furniture and branches to warm themselves in the open because wood fires cannot be resorted to indoors. There is a very infrequent supply of tap water – reportedly available for four hours only at intervals of three days,” says Mr Gunness.

Children such as Israa are at particular risk, aid agencies have warned.

“We are extremely worried about the fate of children trapped inside conflict zones in Syria, receiving little or no humanitarian assistance,” George Graham, Head of Humanitarian Policy at Save the Children, said: “Intentionally starving a population by refusing humanitarian access is unacceptable and a grave violation of the laws of the war.”

The lack of electricity in the camp is also affecting the single hospital that is still in operation, which has in addition run out of supplies. The absence of medical care has led to several women dying in childbirth.

As a result of severe malnutrition, residents, especially children, are now affected by diseases such as anaemia, rickets, and kwashiorkor [a disease of malnutrition related to protein deficiency]. The camp has also not been able to receive vaccines, most notably for polio. That disease has returned to Syria after having been eradicated more than a decade ago.

An UNRWA aid convoy carrying 10,000 polio vaccines and food for 6,000 people was forced to turn back as it tried to enter the camp on Monday, after its Syrian army security detail was repeatedly shot at. Despite the north area of the camp being easier to enter – as it is held by the regime – the Syrian government withheld permission, citing security fears. This forced the convoy to use the southern entrance and pass through some 10 miles of contested territory.

Residents suspect that opposition fighters viewed the presence of regime troops, including a bulldozer clearing the road for the six-truck convoy, as a provocation. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is “utterly unacceptable”.

The Foreign Office added that it will be pushing for the “lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations and the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities and respect for international humanitarian law”.

Adding to Yarmouk’s misery, at least four  people were killed in a barrel bomb attack. “The people were saying, if they can’t enter with food, maybe they can send it by plane. But what [Assad] sent was a bomb,” said Qais Saed.

Activists say around 1,000 people descended on the northern gate following the attack, but were stopped by sniper fire, in which one person died. The Independent couldn’t independently verify this claim.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s bitter civil war since 2011 and millions more have fled the country.

The Syrian government is due to sit down with the opposition in Geneva on 22 January  in what would be the first face-to-face peace talks between the two sides. Many have questioned how effective the talks will be, however, with many opposition groups boycotting them.

The agreement to allow the aid convoys to enter the areas was announced in Paris by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who are working to broker an end to the bloody civil war.

 There is no sign, however, that help is close to arriving in Yarmouk.

“Why don’t they kill us with chemicals? It would be done in a few minutes. It’s better than this way,” said Abu Muhamed, an activist.

Syria images of starvation: Verifying the truth

The factors preventing food and medical aid from getting into the Yarmouk camp also make it unusually hard to verify reports and pictures coming out of it.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has spoken of “profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care”, and numerous sources confirm the severity of conditions in the camp.

But the only visual evidence of these conditions comes from within the camp – from videos posted on YouTube to images posted on Twitter or, in some cases, photographs sent directly to journalists. The suppliers are usually activists.

The image of Israa al-Masri (above), and of a funeral for other victims of the siege, were provided to an Associated Press (AP) reporter by the activist group Palestinians of Syria. The Independent spoke to the AP reporter, who said they had spoken to the person in the activist group who supplied a number of pictures from within Yarmouk camp, including the picture of Israa, whose image also appears in a separate YouTube video, which The Independent has seen.

Medical advice received by The Independent supports the view that the child identified as Israa does show signs of being “severely malnourished”.

Given the weight of evidence of extreme hunger within Yarmouk, there is no particular reason to doubt the authenticity of other images such as the one above, which is also taken from footage supplied by an activist group, and featured by Al Jazeera. But despite rigorous checks, there is still no sure way of verifying them.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick