Siege and starvation have left the rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya in a nightmarish state not seen elsewhere in the country, a UN official has said.
Sajjad Malik, the UN refugee agency’s chief in Damascus, was speaking as 300 residents fled and desperately needed humanitarian aid arrived in the town.
The former mountain resort, besieged since last summer by forces loyal to president Bashar Assad, has come to international attention in recent weeks as reports of starvation emerged and activists shared images of emaciated children and old men widely on social media.
Mr Malik said the “very grim” picture was the result of a blockade of food, medicine and other supplies that left the town in a “desperate situation”.
“There is no comparison to what we saw in Madaya,” he said from Damascus.
“It is a place where you could see there are people, but there is no life. What we saw is something that was pretty horrible.”
Mr Malik described seeing shivering, malnourished children and young adults, saying “most of them had not had bread or rice or vegetables or fruit for months”.
He said a kilogramme of rice would sell there for $300, and noted one account of a person selling a motorcycle to buy 5kg of rice.
A day earlier, the UN said about 400 people in the town’s hospital needed to be evacuated immediately for medical treatment as starvation and other factors had left them on the brink of death.
Syrian authorities, rebels and aid groups have yet to respond.
UN officials said it was too early to determine whether anyone had died of hunger, but the aid group Doctors Without Borders has said that 23 people died of starvation at a health centre it supports in Madaya since December 1, including six infants and five adults over 60.
UN officials have described how locals had been forced to forage for food, such as risking walks in minefields to collect grass or cooking up “leaf soup”, and were burning cardboard to stay warm in their homes.
Madaya is not the only place in Syria suffering from siege, despite international laws banning it.
The UN says 15 municipalities across Syria are currently blockaded, with no one able to get in or out.
Two Shiite villages in the north, under siege by rebels, face similar circumstances, with food and medicine scarce.
Residents are said to be eating grass to survive and undergoing surgery without anaesthesia.
On Monday, convoys carrying food, medical and other supplies reached Madaya around the same time as another convoy arrived in the twin Shiite villages - called Foua and Kfarya – which are far more remote and difficult for media to access.
The operation marked a small, positive development in a bitter conflict now in its fifth year that has killed a quarter of a million people, displaced millions of others and left the country in ruins.
Another tiny improvement in Madaya came with the evacuation of 300 civilians, mostly women and children, who left the town near the Lebanese border on foot and were transported to government-run temporary shelters.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that tracks both sides of the conflict, said the civilians had separately arranged with government forces to leave the city, with some heading to shelters set up in schools and similar places in the area and nearby capital Damascus.