Starved into submission
January 15, 2016 – Food has become “the most deadly weapon of war” in Syria, according to a leading Catholic charity’s Middle East projects coordinator, who says both government and rebel forces are blocking humanitarian aid to force entire communities on the brink of starvation to submit to their rule.
Father Andrzej Halemba, from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), says that many groups are preventing food aid from getting through in an attempt to weaken the resistance of opposition groups. Father Halemba, who is in constant communication with Church leaders in Syria and who visited the country three times last year, said the crisis was putting extra pressure on ACN and other organizations to increase emergency help to areas open to aid. It also confirmed what the media around the world reported this week via the troubling images of starving children – numerous groups had mounted blockades and were letting no one through, no convoys transporting food, in order to weaken the resistance of the opposition. Civilians are paying the price.
Such regions have become a magnet for people fleeing aid-blockaded areas. “Forces on both sides – Government and rebels alike – are preventing humanitarian aid from getting through in an attempt to subdue the people,” said ACN‘s Head of the Middle East section, adding that rebels had taken humanitarian aid and sold it to the highest bidder to generate funds. Referring to Madaya, the town north-east of Damascus where people have reportedly starved to death, he said: “There are quite a few places like Madaya where people are in desperate need but where help is not getting through.”
Amid reports that up to 4 million people in Syria are living in areas cut off from aid, Father Halemba cited statistics showing that, since the violence began nearly five years ago, 280,000 people had been killed in conflict but that 350,000 had died from lack of medicine and other essential supplies. ACN was building up emergency aid programs in centres such as the capital of Damascus, which is receiving thousands of people fleeing Madaya.
Since March 2011 when the conflict first began, ACN has provided $15,051 million dollars in aid for Christians and others in the country. Of that figure, nearly 60 percent – $8.99 million – was provided last year alone.
Renew prayers and increase programs for Syria
Last month, the charity put into action 19 relief programs for Syria. Father Halemba stated that the charity is developing 20 more emergency aid programs for Syria to be rolled out over the coming months. ACN is working with bishops in Damascus, Tartus, Aleppo and Homs as well as Jesuits and religious communities providing food, medicine, anoraks and shoes in regions such as Aleppo, north-east Syria, as well as Homs, further south and surrounding Marmarita and the Valley of the Christians. He stressed how the crisis was compounded by a loss of power supplies in key areas, saying that Aleppo had been without electricity since mid-November, a problem made worse by below zero night-time temperatures.
Saying that last year, 15,000 items of aid were given to families across the country, Father Halemba added: “Many of the families have received numerous packages of aid from us. This year, we are seeking to increase our aid to meet the growing needs of the people.“We wish to fulfil 100 percent of the requests we receive however it is not always possible to achieve everything we hope to do. Every item of help is appreciated so much. People have told us of their joy on receiving our help. They were crying with joy, saying now we can survive the winter.”
Father Halemba spoke to us of the urgent need to provide aid to villages near the north-eastern city of Hassake newly liberated from Islamist forces. At present, many Assyrian Christians exiled from the villages are unable to return because of the lack of basic supplies.
The priest also urged everyone to renew prayers for Syria, especially for the 79 Christians kidnapped in the Assyrian villages near Hassake and held by Daesh at its stronghold of Raqqa in the north of the country. Reports say the Islamists have requested ransoms of up to $46,545 per person.
Fr Halemba went on to highlight the suffering of Christians unable to pay extortionate Islamic jizya tax demanded in areas controlled by ISIS (Daesh) and other militant groups. He said that Christians were forced to pay jizya of up to 87,000 Syrian pounds per year ( $525 CAN – according to the official exchange rate) but that people could not afford it in a country where since 2010 1 kilo of sugar has risen from 5 Syrian pounds ($2.90) to 5,000 Syrian pounds ($30.22 CAN).
Responding to the build-up of international military action in Syria, Father Halemba said: “A Pandora’s Box has been opened up and nobody is willing to close the lid. Instead of talking about waging war, what is needed is for people to sit down and talk about ways to bring peace. That is what the people really need right now.”
By John Pontifex, ACN UK, firstname.lastname@example.org
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada, email@example.com