When aid workers finally reached the besieged Syrian town of Madaya they described “malnourished, starving” crowds of people desperately in need of medical help.
The convoy entered on Monday to bring the first food and medical relief for months to 40,000 residents trapped by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
But Madaya was not the only town receiving aid - Bashar al-Assad’s regime lifted the blockade to give the United Nations and other agencies access on the condition that other areas besieged by Islamist rebels would also receive help.
A pact also allowed aid into two villages where 20,000 people have been facing starvation largely unnoticed by the international community.
That was when the rebel coalition captured Idlib city from regime forces and continued its offensive through the surrounding countryside.
The Sunni rebels swiftly targeted Foua and Kefraya – predominantly loyalist Shia villages lying less than a mile apart.
A series of suicide bombings, kidnappings and shelling started, with government troops being forced to retreat from the surrounding area.
The fall of a nearby regime air base in September, where helicopters had been landing with food supplies, saw the situation worsen dramatically and stories emerged of people eating grass to survive.
The humanitarian crisis, running parallel with that of the government-surrounded Madaya and Zabadani, forced a deal known as the “four towns truce” to be struck allowing a shipment of aid in October and a following evacuation of more than 400 injured and sick civilians in December.
But until Monday, that was the last international aid to reach the areas.
Abu Yusuf, a student from Kefraya, told The Independent that although the Syrian government has helicopters at its disposal to make food drops it has not been enough.
“Helicopters dropped some provisions but in very small quantities and it wasn’t enough for the residents,” he said.
“Some aid came from the Red Crescent but it was a very small quantity and it was intercepted by the [armed] groups which stole from it before it reached Kefraya.”
A spokesperson for the World Food Programme told The Independent 21 lorries reached the two Sunni villages on Monday with supplies intended to last 20,000 people for a month.
“We hope to follow up the food deliveries with further deliveries of medical supplies and blankets later this week as part of a coordinated operation into the besieged areas,” he added.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which was working the UN and Red Cross carried out the delivery, which it said contained 4,000 food packages, baby formula, specialist nutrition for pregnant women, high energy food, medical supplies and blankets.
In Madaya, which has an estimated population of double the size, 44 lorries arrived with 7,800 food parcels including rice and lentils and corresponding levels of other supplies.
The UN said it had received “credible reports” of people dying from starvation and being killed or injured while trying to leave the town, lying in mountains near the Lebanese border.
In pictures: Syria conflict
In pictures: Syria conflict
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Syrians carry children amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl on a street covered with dust following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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Syrians react as they stand amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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An injured Syrian man walks out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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People stand on the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo
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Syrian residents stand amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
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A Syrian resident grasps a mattress amid rubble in the al-Firdous neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo
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A bullet-riddled parking sign stands amid debris in a deserted street leading into the old city of Homs
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A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas
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A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years
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Buses carrying Free Syrian Army fighters leaving Homs. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning it the nickname of "capital of the revolution"
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Syrian government forces hold up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad (L) while others raise the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing after their release by rebels. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria
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A Syrian woman and two children walk past heavily damaged buildings in the northern city of Aleppo
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A man carries a wounded girl following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Mowasalat neighborhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A wounded man sits as he is treated at a makeshift hospital following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo
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Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamic rebels said was an operation to strike Al-Sahaba checkpoint, which is considered a gateway to Al-Dayf valley, and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province
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Men try to put out fire at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Civil Defence members try to put out fire
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Survivors react at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Residents queue as they wait to receive food aid distributed by the UNRWA at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
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Belongings of Syrian rebels inside a chapel at Crac des Chevaliers, the world's best preserved medieval Crusader castle in Syria. The village was destroyed in fighting between the government and rebel forces while the castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, also has been damaged over the past two years
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Hosen Sabah, a 16-year-old student is comforted by his mother at a hospital in Damascus. Nosen was wounded by a mortar outside his school, while 14 other students were killed and over 80 wounded
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A Free Syrian Army fighter works on a locally made launcher before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Mork town
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Syrian policemen and citizens inspecting the site of a car bomb at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus. According to Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA), a car bomb explosion has gone off in the countryside of Damascus and initial information say there are casualties, where a car rigged with explosions was remotely detonated at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus during engineering units it was trying to dismantled it
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Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man helps a woman to make her way through debris following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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A Syrian man reacts as he carries the body of injured boy following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 33 civilians were killed in the attack
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Syrian rescue workers carry the body of a woman following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
Accounts of at least 23 deaths, images of emaciated children and reports of people resorting to eating cats, dogs, leaves and grass to survive have shocked the world.
Some Assad supporters and politicians have said the photos were faked, while others alleged the anti-government rebels controlling Madaya were withholding food from residents.
The UN has long denounced the use of starvation by all sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war, which could eventually be pursued as a war crime or a crime against humanity.
At least 15 sieges continue across Syria, with an estimated 400,000 people trapped in worsening conditions.
Only 10 per cent of all requests to access those areas have been approved and delivered in the past year and humanitarian agencies and international governments have called for Monday’s deliveries to be the start of many more.
The issue is expected to be one of many key points in upcoming peace talks scheduled to be brokered by the UN in Geneva on 25 January.Reuse content