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‘Children Are Eating Leaves Off The Trees’: The Nightmare of The Siege of Madaya, Syria


By Avi Asher-Schapiro

Correction: a previous version of this story contained photos purporting to show malnourished children in Madadya. VICE News has since learned that the pictures may not have been taken in Madaya, and has removed them. 

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a pregnant woman and her daughter tried to sneak out of Madaya, a mountain village perched in the snow-capped peaks of southwestern Syria.

As they reached the southern edge of town, someone tripped over a landmine, and the loud blast alerted a nearby Hezbollah checkpoint of their escape. The fighters opened fire, and between the explosion and the barrage, both mother and daughter died.

Desperate escape attempts like this one — which was reported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and confirmed to VICE News by local residents — have become more and more common in Madaya, a village of 40,000 that’s been under siege since July by a combination of Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

In the past month alone, 31 residents have died from starvation, or in attempts to run the Hezbollah-manned blockade that encircles the town. A report compiled by the Syrian-American Medical Society and made available to VICE News found that a kilogram (two pounds)of flour now retails for around $100, while the average Syrian makes less than $200 each month.

“I had strawberry leaves for dinner today,” Rajai, a 26-year old English and math teacher in Madaya, told VICE News by phone, asking that his name be withheld for security reasons. “I haven’t had a real meal in three months.” Since the siege began in July, he’s lost 50 pounds. “Kids are eating leaves off the trees, and the very old and very young are dying,” he said.

As the death toll mounted in December, residents of Madaya began posting desperate pleas on social media, along with disturbing images, reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps.

“In the early days of the revolution, we used to say no one could be made to feel hungry or afraid,” he said. “But now we know we were wrong.”

Madaya lies on a strategically key line in Syria’s ballooning multi-front, multi-party civil war. The town is nestled within the Qalamoun mountain range, alongside the Lebanese border, less than 30 miles (50 km) from the capital Damascus. Stamping out unrest in Qalamoun, said Joshua Landis, the head of the Center

According to Rajai, the Assad regime is punishing his hometown for its participation in the Syrian uprising in 2011. When peaceful protesters took to the streets in the nearby city of Zabadani in April 2011, Rajai joined in. “We wanted to clean this country of Assad,” he said. He was arrested and tortured. Now, after five years of civil war, his outlook is bleak. In a picture dated January 3, a group of young men hold a poster in English pleading with the UN and the Pope to do something to lift the siege.


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