FAIRFIELD, Conn. (September 8, 2016) — The besieged Syrian town of Madaya has seen a worrying increase in suicide attempts and mental illness among children and young adults, Save the Children warned, as desperately needed aid has been blocked for more than four months.
Medical staff have reported that at least six teenagers — the youngest a 12 year old girl — and seven young adults have attempted suicide in the past two months, compared to almost no cases before July 2015 when the siege was first imposed.
Doctors say hundreds more people are suffering from psychological problems and mental illness including severe depression and paranoia, often brought on or exacerbated by the conditions they are living in. Specialized mental health care and even basic medical treatment is not available. In addition to the surge in suicide attempts, there are reports of a serious meningitis outbreak.
The town came to prominence at the start of this year when at least 65 residents were reported to have died from hunger and malnutrition. At the time, aid access was opened up and convoys of food and medicines were allowed to enter — but the siege has tightened again recent months, with no humanitarian relief allowed in since April.
Rula*, a teacher in Madaya, said the siege is taking a mental toll on children at her school: "The children are psychologically crushed and tired. When we do activities like singing with them, they don’t react at all, they don’t laugh like they would normally. They draw images of children being butchered in the war, or tanks, or the siege and lack of food."
"Most children are suffering from malnutrition and have trouble digesting food. They have infections in their digestive systems and diseases like meningitis," she said. "Now the hunger and siege is returning to how it was last winter, when children and even adults were dying from starvation. We don’t need sympathy, we need help in this crisis."
The siege is separating children from their families, including young children who were recently evacuated for medical treatment but were not allowed to be accompanied by their parents. Rula has been separated from two of her children, a boy and girl aged 15 and 12, for more than a year. They managed to leave to Lebanon with an aunt the day before the siege started.
"We heard that there were plenty of children who died of starvation," Rula’s daughter Samar* said. "Our mother told us that the situation was bad and that she was trying to leave with my father… she also told us that she is helping children. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her."
The worsening situation in Madaya is echoed in besieged areas across Syria. Save the Children and our partners in Syria fear that extreme lack of food, water, fuel and medicines, combined with often intense bombing, are being used to push entire communities from their homes to allow parties to the conflict to secure territory.
At the end of last month, the entire town of Daraya was evacuated after four years of siege, and there are signs this pattern is being repeated in Moadamiya and al-Waer in Homs with reports that some residents are leaving.
"The long siege of Madaya and other towns is taking its toll on people’s minds as well as their bodies," said Sonia Khush, Syria Director for Save the Children. "The pressure of living under these conditions for years on end without respite is too much to bear, especially for children. There are more than 250,000 children living under siege in Syria and while they are resilient, we see the signs of trauma and distress every day."
"Madaya and other besieged areas have been forgotten once again, but this time the world must not wait for people to starve to death before acting," Khush added. "It is clear that on all sides, civilians are being made to suffer in order to achieve military aims. Even in the midst of a brutal war, food, clean water, health care and freedom of movement are rights, not privileges. We need immediate and sustained access for humanitarian relief and much greater effort from the international community to halt the forcible evacuations of whole towns and communities."
According to the latest data, aid to the vast majority of Syria’s besieged areas has ground to a halt, with the UN warning that it was only able to deliver aid to two of the 19 areas it classifies as besieged in August. The previous month, aid was delivered to only around 9 percent of the 5.4 million people living in besieged and "hard to reach" areas.
*Names changed for protection.
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