Refugees starving to death in Damascus suburb

In a rare moment of cooperation between the Syrian government and rebel forces, aid agencies say hundreds of people were allowed to evacuate over the weekend from a suburb of Damascus where the nearly three-year-old civil war has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

The evacuation from Yarmouk Camp, a rebel-held suburb just south of Damascus, comes after 89 people, most of them children and elderly people, have died of malnutrition-related diseases since January 1, according to Jamal Hammad, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent. He said his count only includes cases with confirmed death certificates.

Children under the age of one and elderly people over 65 account for 60 percent of the deaths, he said.  The United Nations estimates that some 20,000 people remain there, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Osama, a 26-year-old former graduate student in economics who is also a local relief worker, said that in Yarmouk, people are eating cats, grass and cactus they are so hungry. Snipers have shot people dead while they are gathering grass to eat, he said.

In recent days, a small amount of food aid has trickled in through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Hammad’s wife Amal Ahmad, a trained x-ray technician who is also a relief worker, said this was the first actual food she and many she knows have eaten in at least four months. She said many people, especially children, had problems digesting the food since their stomachs are completely empty, and they vomited their first meals.

Osama said some people are down to consuming only water. “Sometimes we do this…drink some water with some sugar or some salt and go back to sleep. But when you go to the street you will find maybe the people next door…they’re dead,” he said.

Photographs of emaciated children have emerged across the Internet in recent days, purportedly from Yarmouk. Sources confirm that photos obtained by NBC News are of children in Yarmouk, and were taken in recent days and weeks.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said there are “widespread reports of malnutrition” including children with rickets and anemia. He also said, “people, including infants, are eating animal feed.”

Gunness said the aid allowed into Yarmouk so far is “shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these civilians,” and called on Syrian authorities and all parties in the conflict to facilitate the rapid access of substantial quantities of food to civilians in Yarmouk.

Asked what Yarmouk needs most, Osama said, “We need to save the children inside Yarmouk. Maybe send them out of Syria…our families will be happy, believe me. Just save the children.”

Watch related video clip

[NBC]

Refugees starving to death in Syrian camp

A man lies dead; his severely emaciated body makes the rib cage protruding from his midsection look violent and sharp. A child sits in the dirt, the closed storefront behind him spray-painted with the words “I swear to God I am hungry.” The lifeless body of a baby lies discolored and wrapped in a white sheet.

These are a few of the pictures activists have posted on social media pages from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, just 6 miles from central Damascus. The camp has been cut off from aid since November 2013 and engulfed in fighting between the government and rebel forces since December 2012.

At least 44 people have died from a lack of food and medical supplies at the camp — 28 from starvation, said the Palestine Association for Human Rights in Syria, which has gathered and posted the names of the dead.

People are now surviving on water boiled with herbs, or families sharing a cup of rice with their neighbors. “We are dying, slowly,” resident Abu Mohammed said. “Just today, three people tried to go to an empty field to eat grass from the ground, and they were shot by snipers,” he said, his voice rising in frustration. “If you can imagine — people are dying just to eat grass.”

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, has tried to give food and other aid to camp residents “amid reports of widespread malnutrition in Yarmouk, amid reports of women dying during childbirth because of shortages of medical care, amid reports of children eating animal feed to survive,” said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the agency.

Their attempts have been unsuccessful. On Monday, aid trucks had to retreat after the Syrian government told the convoy to enter from the camp’s southern entrance, where heavy gunfire prevented it from proceeding.

Yarmouk has seen widespread cases of “malnutrition and the absence of medical care, including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries, and including for women in childbirth, with fatal consequences for some women. 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,” Gunness said.

“The scale of the crisis in Syria, with millions of civilians affected, is staggering and the humanitarian response insufficient,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Monday, at the end of a three-day visit to the country.

 [Read full CNN article]