Pro-government fighters recently evacuated from two besieged villages in northern Syria described harsh conditions there with scarce food and medicine, saying some residents are eating grass to survive and undergoing surgery without anesthesia.
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The villages of Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province have been under siege for more than a year, but the situation has worsened since September. That's when insurgents captured a nearby air base where helicopters used to take off and drop canned food, vegetables, rice and bread to about 30,000 people in the mostly Shi'ite area.
"Our life was catastrophic in Foua and Kfarya," said Hussein Mahdi Kazem, a 16-year-old wounded fighter. He spoke from a bed in Hezbollah's Rasoul al-Azam Hospital south of Beirut, where he was evacuated last month from Kfarya.
But the two Shi'ite villages are not alone in their suffering. Both sides in Syria's nearly five-year-old conflict have used siege tactics on towns or villages as a way of getting an area under control. In retaliation for the siege of the Shi'ite villages, opposition activists say Syrian troops and members of Hezbollah have taken harsh measures against a Sunni area of Syria of about 40,000 people near the Lebanese border.
The mountain border town of Madaya has been besieged since early July, and conditions have worsened with colder weather and dwindling supplies. A snowstorm hit early in the new year, and there has been no electricity or diesel fuel. People have taken to removing interior doors in their homes and burning them for heat, said a local official who identified himself as Samir Ali. He told The Associated Press via Skype that the cost of goods has soared, with a kilogram of crushed wheat selling for about $250 and 900 grams of powdered milk for infants going for about $300. A group of people recently killed a dog and ate it, he said.
Of 23 deaths in Madaya in recent weeks, 10 were attributed to a lack of food and the rest were either shot to death or blown up by mines planted by pro-government and Hezbollah forces, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group. At least 25 checkpoints prevent people from leaving, Ali said.
A Facebook page describing conditions in Madaya posted photos of several older men who it said had starved to death. The photos could not be independently confirmed.
It's not known how many people died in Foua and Kfarya. The evacuated fighters described how people who need medication in the two villages often must take drugs that are expired, and that mothers must crush grains of rice — when available — and boil the mixture to make baby food.
Pawl Krzysiek, a Syria-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the situation in the villages of Foua, Kfarya and Madaya "is extremely dire, and winter is making things even more difficult for them."
"For far too long, people were left without basic necessities such as food and medicine," Krzysiek said. "It is the ICRC's utmost priority to deliver in the coming days to people there." He said ICRC is coordinating the aid to the villages but refused to give further details.
The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, called on the UN and the international community to allow aid into Madaya, warning that any delay "will lead to more deaths among innocent civilians."
"Children, women and elderly are dying as a result of hunger and cold," said coalition member Salah Hamawi. But UN efforts to take in food often get disrupted by either insurgents or pro-government fighters, the observatory said.
A UN-backed deal led to the December 28 evacuation of more than 450 people from two war zones in Syria, including 338 people from the two northern villages and 125 people from the Zabadani area near the border with Lebanon.
Madaya, which is near Zabadani, was not part of the evacuation deal, but food was supposed to go in.
In October, the UN said it had mistakenly sent hundreds of boxes of expired nutrition biscuits to besieged civilians in Zabadani and Madaya. Yacoub El Hillo, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said in a statement that human error during the loading process caused the mistake. Ali, the local official in Madaya, said some people got sick after eating the biscuits. He added that residents were promised more supplies, but nothing has been delivered since then.
In all three besieged areas, residents used to rely on troops or insurgents to bring them food at inflated prices, but the smuggling has recently dropped sharply.
Moamen Haj Ali, another wounded Shi'ite fighter being treated in Beirut, said water is running out in Foua and Kfarya because of a lack of diesel fuel for pumping stations.
"Life is miserable. People cannot find a pill of aspirin or painkillers," said Mohsen Darwish, a Shi'ite cleric from Kfarya who lives in Lebanon but is in contact with residents of both. "Their dream is to eat vegetables.