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.”