In Madaya, permanent scars met with glimmers of hope

Families in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya are struggling to rebuild their lives. With limited humanitarian access, education and medical services have suffered, and malnutrition continues to plague the community.

By Rafik ElOuerchefani
On 11 January 2016 in Madaya, Rural Damascus, children and their families wait for permissions to leave the besieged town.
UNICEF/UN07227/Al Saleh, WFP
08 April 2016

MADAYA/DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 8 April 2016 – “People looked healthier than during my first visit,” says a UNICEF health worker, on return from a mission to Madaya in mid-March. The earlier mission, in January, had found the town’s residents barely surviving.

There were indeed signs of improvement during the recent mission. A UNICEF team was told that food scarcity continued to keep children and families awake during the cold nights in the Syrian town. However, unlike in previous months, civilians did not complain from hunger, but from the lack of food diversity. “Many children get bloated from the lack of protein,” said a father, watching volunteers unload aid trucks into makeshift warehouses.

Madaya’s local health workers confirmed that a high number of children and adults showed signs of oedema caused by protein deficiency. A dearth of trained health workers, medicines, treatments and facilities meant that many of these cases were not being properly diagnosed.

An 8-year-old girl was out alone in the dark to see what assistance the aid agencies had brought. “Did you bring tuna cans?” she asked. Like many people that UNICEF met in Madaya, she knew that canned tuna is a good and cheap source of protein.

“And diapers? Did you bring diapers?” she then asked. Her mother had remained home with a 1-year-old baby.

Learning in Madaya

What about university?” a young woman asked.

Education is another concern for many of the people in Madaya. At the height of the food crisis, schools closed for around two months because children were too weak to attend.

Today most children are back in classes, with school bags and notebooks from UNICEF’s recent aid convoys, but education has yet to fully resume. Children said that what they need is a proper school curriculum, so that their studies will count. Many also complained that their teachers are trying to teach students of different grades in one classroom. “They may go to school and learn a few things, but will they obtain certificates?” a father asked.

Children described how their school windows were blasted out from the siege, providing little protection from the harsh winter. “The cold is a killer in school,” a girl said. Another said, “When it rains and I go to school I freeze.”

Mohammed is screened for malnutrition
On 14 January 2016, Mohammed is screened for malnutrition at a makeshift hospital in Madaya.
UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2016

Mohammed in Madaya in April, looking happier and healthier after making a full recovery.

Scars of unforgotten pain

Though the children and families of Madaya are no longer starving to death, they still suffer the devastating consequences of the siege.

“Two bullets. One in the neck and another in the back,” a boy told the UNICEF team, describing how he was shot. He was then denied exit from Madaya to get medical treatment.

The child’s permanent scars spoke for his unforgotten pain. But he survived.

“Wassim lost his legs, but at least he will live,” said a mother. Her 7-year-old son lay in Madaya’s makeshift hospital after a landmine had shattered his legs. Tragically, Wassim passed away two hours later. His brother, 6, died seven hours after.

The siblings had been playing with their friend Ammar. The explosion killed him on the spot.

Glimmers of hope

Despite the continued hardships that afflict the town, small signs of recovery have begun to emerge. Mohammed, the boy seen in a video that went viral and brought the world’s attention to the severe malnutrition in Madaya, is now recovering.

After a UNICEF doctor examined him and worked on his treatment plan, his life was saved.

Treatment for malnutrition must reach the children of Madaya.

Medical treatment, including medical evacuation, must be available for children like Wassim, his brother and Ammar.

Specialized equipment like midwifery kits and surgical materials must reach the families for whom they are intended.

These measures mean the difference between life and death. Death threatened the families of Madaya in January. Unless aid continues to reach them, death will loom on the horizon for Madaya’s children – including those who are not yet born. 

“My greatest wish,” a young child told the UNICEF team, “is to get out of here.”