Damascus (AsiaNews) – Madaya is a city "hostage to people living within in,” armed gangs and terrorist groups, as well as members of Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State), who use civilians as "human shields,” said Gregory III Laham, Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
Speaking to AsiaNews, the prelate said that “contrary to recent media reports, 20,000, not 40,000 people still live in the town” fought over by government and rebel forces.
"As a Church, we don’t have access to the town,” he explained. “We know that sending aid is risky, because, like elsewhere, they often end up in the hands of criminal gangs and terrorist groups."
Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to life-saving aid. Madaya, 25 km north of Damascus, is one of them.
Since early July, the town has been besieged by government forces and their allies in Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement.
Although there are no updated figures on the number of victims, sources told Doctors Without Borders (MSF) that at least 23 people have died from hunger since 1 December 2015.
According to UN officials, credible witnesses have said that people have starved to death and others have been killed for trying to flee the area.
Today, after a long wait, a convoy left for Madaya, with food supplies to last a month for at least 20,000 people.
Residents had not received any aid since October. With food supplies dwindling, prices have hit the roof. A litre of milk sold on the black market can fetch more than US$ 200.
In the coming days, medical drugs and other essential non-food items are expected to arrive in the city.
Gregory III noted that situations like that in Madaya require careful consideration because the aid "could end up in the hands of terrorists, not the people".
The situation of the city is very similar to that in Yarmouk, which the Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus in the past called a "shameful" case because of the silence of the international community.
"If food arrives, there is the risk that it will be seized,” His Beatitude explained. “The situation is complicated. The issue is not only that the government does not want to let aid in. It is an ongoing crime against the weakest, a war among the big that kills more and more of the weak.”
The patriarch hopes that aid “will reach the people". As a Church, we appeal to the government and the opposition "not to forget people, life, which must be protected."
The prelate hopes to see the international community implement the UN peace resolution on Syria reached in New York, despite the complications caused by the crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In this context of war and violence, "Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy is even more important,” the patriarch said, because it reminds people that "we must not let the fire of hope go out, that we must pray and work for peace and reconciliation."