Roy Gutman writes: Until the beginning of this month, Madaya was an obscure town in southwestern Syria, overshadowed by nearby Zabadani, where opposition rebels had fought a fierce battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and more recently Hezbollah. But today, as international relief convoys arrive with food and medicine to lift a starvation siege, Madaya has become the focal point of Syrian aid workers’ anger at the United Nations, who accuse the international body of giving higher priority to its relationship with Damascus than to the fate of Madaya’s beleaguered residents.
Madaya was the worst off of all the besieged towns in Syria, relief workers say. As early as October, locals in the town had been raising alarms about the dire humanitarian situation there. At least six children and 17 adults starved to death in December, and hundreds more risked starvation.
U.N. officials knew this — but until shocking images of starving infants started circulating and news media sounded the alarm, it remained silent, reserving alarm for an unpublished internal memo.
The “Flash Update” issued on Jan. 6 by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which negotiates aid deliveries, spoke of “desperate conditions,” including “severe malnutrition reported across the community,” and said there was an “urgent need” for humanitarian assistance. In October, community leaders reported some 1,000 cases of malnutrition in children under the age of 1, it said.
But the general public could not have known this, because OCHA classified the bulletin as “Internal, Not for Quotation.” OCHA had no immediate comment on why the update, leaked to Foreign Policy, wasn’t published.
The U.N.’s months-long silence on the starvation in Madaya is one of the reasons for the disquiet roiling the community of international and Syrian relief officials. Another is its oft-repeated claim that no one siege is that important but that all should be lifted, a goal that appears beyond reach. When Yacoub el-Hillo, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, addressed reporters on Jan. 12, a day after leading the first convoy into the town, he described Madaya residents as “a people that are desperate; a people that are cold; a people that are hungry; a people that have almost lost hope” — but he blamed no one in particular for this state of affairs and made no mention of the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, which in fact is maintaining the siege against Syrian civilians in Madaya.
Instead, he swung into a familiar U.N. litany: The siege of rebel-held Madaya was just like the sieges mounted by the Islamic State or Syrian rebels against government-held regions. [Continue reading…]