LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Syria’s warring sides must seize this week’s peace conference in Switzerland as a chance to allow humanitarian aid workers access to nearly 3 million people who have been under siege or cut off by fighting, the World Food Programme (WFP) says.
WFP’s Syria Country Director Matthew Hollingworth urged combatants to call a ceasefire in order to enable aid workers to reach trapped civilians, bring in aid and medical help, assess needs and carry out evacuations.
“The very least that these different fighters can provide is a pause to allow the humanitarians to get in and provide that emergency relief,” he said during a trip to London.
Hollingworth said the WFP had received credible reports of malnutrition-related deaths in besieged areas, but could not verify them without access. Some communities have been cut off for more than a year.
An international conference to find a political solution to the conflict is due to begin in Switzerland on Wednesday. The talks, known as Geneva 2, are seen as the most serious international effort yet to end nearly three years of civil war, which has killed some 130,000 people and displaced millions.
“Although humanitarian assistance is not part of the political discussions, part of this peace process has to look at improving the lives of Syrians affected by the crisis - both inside Syria and seeking refugee status in neighbouring countries and beyond. Humanitarian issues need to be part of that Geneva 2 discussion,” Hollingworth said in an interview on Friday with Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In its biggest ever appeal, the United Nations has asked for $6.5 billion for Syria to meet humanitarian needs in 2014.
“$6.5 billion is the price of failure to find a political solution. If that doesn’t happen following Geneva 2, for how long can the international community continue to support that scale of response? It becomes unsustainable and we can’t let that happen,” Hollingworth added.
“Every member of the international community needs to be recognising the importance of getting (Geneva 2) right.”
Hollingworth said access was a huge problem for the WFP. Some 2.5 million people are stuck in hard-to-reach areas in the north where aid operations are severely compromised by fighting between government and opposition forces and between different rebel groups.
Another 250,000 people are trapped in besieged areas. Opposition forces have surrounded two areas in the northwestern Aleppo region, while government forces have encircled 38 neighbourhoods around Damascus.
On Friday, the front page of Britain’s Independent newspaper showed a picture of an emaciated toddler trapped in Yarmouk Palestinian district of Damascus which is besieged by the Syrian army. The paper said the girl had died after the photo and reported that people were surviving on animal food, leaves, grass and water with spices.
In what appeared to be a conciliatory move ahead of the peace talks, Syria over the weekend permitted some aid to reach Yarmouk, where 15 people are reported to have died from malnutrition.
“The longer people are forced to live in this kind of situation, the longer fighters on both sides fail to recognise and respect the lives of civilians caught up in this tragic war, the more likely these things are to happen because people’s resilience can only last so long,” Hollingworth said.
He said reports of malnutrition-related deaths reaching the WFP were isolated, but added: “Even if it’s one child… it’s something that’s truly shocking in the 21st century and something we need to take action on.”
Hollingworth condemned besiegement as an indiscriminate tactic with appalling consequences for civilians. A few areas are tightly sealed with nothing going in. In others, limited supplies are getting in through tunnels or when troops allow controlled movement in and out, Hollingworth said, but he stressed the amount getting through was insufficient.
The WFP has asked for an end to besiegements, but he said they were unlikely to stop any time soon.
“EVERYONE IN CRISIS”
Hollingworth, who previously oversaw WFP operations in Afghanistan, said the Syrian crisis was “testing us as much as we’ve ever been tested before”.
This year Syria and neighbouring countries hosting refugees will account for about a third of the WFP’s entire budget.
Hollingworth said the WFP needed to raise £24 million ($41 mln) every week to help 4.25 million people inside Syria and more than 2.9 million who have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere.
“One-third of the original population of Syria is homeless… and many have been displaced three, four, five times. The more people run from terror, war and frontlines, the more their ability to continue to survive is challenged. Families have very little left to sell. Their livelihoods don’t exist anymore,” he said.
In addition, inflation has skyrocketed since the crisis began. In some areas, Hollingworth said the price of bread had gone up 350 percent, dairy products and eggs cost six times more, and meat was now beyond the means of most people.
Hollingworth said everywhere you went you could see people camping in factories, warehouses or building sites with no electricity or water. Some are sharing apartments with 30 others. Many are surviving on what they can grow in back gardens or on rooftops.
“Everybody in Syria today is facing a crisis. There are parts of Syria that I would imagine look very similar to Dresden in 1945. They are shells of what they once were,” he said, referring to the German city destroyed during World War II.
He said Syria’s population would be affected far into the future and reiterated U.N. warnings that the country could see “a lost generation” of children who had grown up on a poor diet and without an education.