February 24, 2016

The town is full of skeleton-like people walking around in a daze

A doctor's dispatch from Madaya

I have come across so many painful scenes during the siege of Madaya, but there’s one particular case I will never forget. In the middle of a snowstorm, a woman with a baby girl came to our house. When my wife opened the door, she screamed, “My baby is going to die, I don’t know what to do, help me!”

As I pulled down the blanket I saw an emaciated figure. I saw a skeleton. “When did you last feed her?” I asked. A week ago came the reply. In a state of panic and on borrowed time, we went looking for milk. We started knocking on every door in town. The serum drips we had been using to feed many of the children would not be enough to save this seven-month-old. Some women had managed to put aside some breast milk during the siege; one woman gave us some but it was enough for only one feed. So the next day, the mother went out again, knocking on every door. There is no milk at all. We would try negotiating with the soldiers who manned the checkpoints to let milk in, offering bribes, anything, but they rarely listen.

I am also haunted by the story of 53-year-old Jamil Alloush. He died in front of me and I couldn’t save him. He hadn’t eaten in a week when he came to see me. So we gave him six bags of serum and one of blood. We had managed to procure 200g of food, but it was too late by then. After he was admitted to the hospital we tried to revive him countless times, but it didn’t work. He died the next day. If we had the supplies to feed him intravenously Jamil would still be alive today. I’m being forced to use expired serums now because we have nothing else.

One desperate man fed cat meat to his kids. He didn’t tell his wife because she would have objected. In the end they all got food poisoning. He took me aside and admitted what he had done. We had to pump their stomachs.

It is so difficult when we have to admit kids to the hospital. When I’m about to administer serum injections, the kids start yelling at the top of their lungs, “Please doctor I don’t want serum anymore. Please, I just want to eat something! I need to eat!” All we have are those small packets of powder from the U.N. They contain some salts and sugar. People here fight over them during distribution, because they’re the closest thing we have to food.

We go knocking on doors because sometimes people have two spoonfuls of rice. They give us one and keep the other for themselves. We try to help each other as much as we can because we’re all neighbours and friends but people are on edge from the constant hunger. Everyone is so frustrated here. One extended family had a fight over a bag of rice for which they had paid $300 dollars. They couldn’t agree how to divide it up among themselves.

You would think the streets would be empty because people are exhausted and have nowhere to go, but the town is full of skeleton-like people walking around in a daze, looking for scraps of food from 6am until sunset. People are in denial, every day they wake up and think that they will miraculously find a store open. They go to the souk hoping to find undiscovered food. But the shutters remain closed and shops are completely empty.

Madaya is surrounded by landmines to ensure no one can get out alive; so far 10 people have been killed by these devices. There have been cases where people are blown up while trying to get milk or rice. There were two kids out trying to cut some grass to feed themselves. They stepped on a landmine, and we had to amputate their legs.

This area is very close to Lebanon, Hezbollah see it as an extension of their territory. There will be no reconciliation unless Hezbollah agrees to it. They are besieging us to force the local people out of Madaya. They want to create a demographic change so it becomes an extension of Hezbollah-held areas in Lebanon.

I am originally from Damascus but I’ve been living in Madaya for the last four years. I am an anesthesiologist . At the beginning of the uprising I took part in peaceful demonstrations then I started working in field hospitals. We only have four doctors in Madaya: including a pediatrician and a female gynecologist but she only recently graduated so she doesn’t have much experience.

I am married and have a four-year-old girl. Like all other kids here, my child is starving. She eats perhaps half a meal every 24 hours. She comes running to me, crying and begging for sweets or chips. I try to soothe her and say we’ll go to Damascus someday; we’ll buy all the food in the world. I tell her to wait, but she starts to cry. After a while, she gives up and falls asleep from exhaustion. I want my daughter to become a doctor one day and to experience life away from shelling, tanks, sniping, that constant unrelenting noise of war.

Every night, I sit alone and cry for half an hour. This feeling of helplessness, of not being able to do anything for my people is the worst. I am starting to hate Syria now and just want to leave. I want to settle anywhere but here. I want to check on those whom I looked after during this time and then leave this place forever. Sometimes I feel as if I don’t have the energy to see one more patient.

We, the Syrian people, think the rest of the world is conspiring against us. There can be no other explanation for why this has gone on for so long. We need a political solution in order to give people a way out of this endless battle.
At one point, we offered to hand ourselves over to the regime in return for lifting the siege. We said just break the siege on civilians and we will hand ourselves over, you can detain us. The regime simply said no. You can’t condemn 30,000 civilians to die for the actions of 100-200 rebel fighters.

In the early months of the sieges we tried to send messages to the U.N., to tell them what was happening here in Madaya. I don’t know why it took so long. It wasn’t until people died that we got a reaction. People all over the world cannot believe that people are dying from starvation in this day and age. As the second round of aid arrived people were very relieved, as all their supplies had finished. There should be an urgent push to relieve all the besieged areas and send in regular aid each month. There are currently 50 people in a critical condition who still can’t get out. We need humanitarian corridors so if someone is very sick he can get treatment, get food.

These are civilians who have nothing to do with the war. We are paying the price for starting a popular uprising. They are innocent, but still they are punished. But even after everything that’s happened, I can never acknowledge the regime as legitimate.

In the last week Dr Khaled has left Madaya after receiving a series of death threats. He was told that armed groups were trying to kill him, “My friend advised me to leave because he had been told there was a direct threat to my life. I also received an anonymous phone call from a man who said he would assassinate me.”

So he gathered all his savings and paid off the officers manning the checkpoints. His wife and daughter went to Damascus and he fled in the opposite direction towards Lebanon. He had to walk for three days and nights. Dr Khaled Mohammed is currently in hiding but his family are safe.