Geopolitics

The Tragedy Of Madaya Explained

The siege of Madaya began in July, but global pressure on the Syrian government to allow humanitarian access didn't begin to build until nearly 30 people had died of starvation. Why did it take so long?

Red Crescent aid arriving in Madaya
Red Crescent aid arriving in Madaya
Shawn Carrié

DAMASCUS â€" The siege of Madaya and the shocking images of starving children have brought renewed global attention to the Syrian conflict, and especially the widespread use of siege tactics.

Over the past several weeks, the factors and events that led to some two dozen people starving to death in Madaya have become clearer. The situation has also illuminated the mechanics of modern sieges and highlighted the limited ability humanitarian agencies have to address them.

When reports started to surface in November that people were starving to death, Syrian officials issued blanket denials. The state-run SANA news agency called the reports "falsification and disinformation."

Allies of President Bashar al-Assad followed suit in the international press, working to mock and discredit photos of the starving children and suggesting the situation was being exploited as "Western propaganda."

Tucked away in the Qalamoun mountains of rural Damascus, Madaya is surrounded by a natural valley on three sides. Residents joined protests in the summer of 2011, marching through its small streets chanting for political freedoms and flying the flag of the revolution in the town square.

In 2013, as protests turned to civil war, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) began tightening its control over movements in and out of the valley where Madaya and Zabadani are nestled. A single road toward the border with Lebanon leads through the area where, for a time, many Syrians passed through on their way to safer ground in Lebanon. This made Madaya a target for the army, forcing rebels to rally to fight for control of the border area.

When supplies stopped

The government enacted a total blockade in July, shutting down the road to Damascus while its ally Hezbollah encircled the valley from the Lebanese side. Checkpoints were set up on the only road in or out, and mines were planted in the area.

Violence intensified throughout the summer, as government airstrikes in neighboring Zabadani sent 20,000 people fleeing to Madaya, doubling its population and prompting the first appeals for support from the outside world. With regular commerce suspended, food and medical supplies steadily dwindled.

Hunger and cold set in throughout the fall. From August through November, Madaya activists posted photo after photo counting the days of the siege. A delivery of emergency food aid came in October â€" the first in three months â€" but it was more of a painkiller than a cure. Inundated with dozens of cases of fainting every day due to lack of food, doctors had to improvise crude IV drips out of leftover kitchen supplies. By December's end, 23 people had died of starvation.

By November, there were already reports of deaths by starvation, inflated prices and claims of hoarding food and supplies. Yet people in Madaya could do little but hold small protests continuing their appeals for the world to intervene. It wasn't until Jan. 7, after dozens of starvation deaths and a chorus of international outcry, that the United Nations announced its plan to intervene.

Humanitarian organizations operating inside Syria were harshly criticized for their failure to save lives in the besieged town. Just 15 miles from their offices in Damascus, they could have reached Madaya in under an hour.

Almost impossible to reach

"Syria is not an easy country to work in," Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek responded. Even when they know there is a critical need for assistance, humanitarian organizations must obtain permission from several government ministries to cross army checkpoints and deliver the aid. "There are a lot of administrative procedures. You have to constantly negotiate access, link with multiple actors on the ground or in the skies, get permission and agreement of all parties, and security guarantees."

Iyad Nasr, spokesperson for the UN's humanitarian branch, said they had asked that the Syrian government allow them access into Madaya seven times over the past year. "We simply were not given permission to cross the checkpoints and to actually get into Madaya until very recently," he said.

The opposition fighting the Assad government has for years accused the army of targeting besieged cities with a campaign they call "Kneel or Starve." At least 450,000 people are living under siege in Syria, according to the UN, although other watchdog organizations estimate the number could be as high as 1 million.

The tactic has been used by government troops, rebel groups and ISIS. A 2014 inquiry by the UN Human Rights Council found such limitations of movement to be common practice inside Syria. "Partial sieges aimed at expelling armed groups turned into tight blockades that prevented the delivery of basic supplies, including food and medicine, as part of a "starvation until submission" campaign," the report said. "In blatant violation of international law, civilians are generally not allowed to leave the besieged areas and may be killed or arrested for trying to do so."

UN human rights official André-Michel Essoungou said maintaining a siege requires a high degree of control over entry and exit points "and is primarily enforced by installing checkpoints."

A paramedic working with the rural Damascus branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that even marked ambulances can't pass freely through checkpoints outside of Damascus without advance authorization â€" even in emergencies.

Humanitarian missions by international groups require an even higher level of approval. Stephen O’Brien, OCHA's top official, confirmed that negotiating permission from the government has stymied efforts to get through to hard-to-reach areas.

"Only 23 of 85 convoy requests made by the UN have been approved in principle by the Syrian minister of foreign affairs," O’Brien said, referring to the 2014-15 reporting period. "Less than half of those approved actually were carried out due to lack of final security clearances and lack of safe passage."

Yet civil society opposition figures say the UN is waiting for permission it does not need according to international law. They charge that its inability to push the government to allow humanitarian access has left cities like Deir Ezzor besieged both by ISIS and by the government's army, which continues to use the region's airport for bombing missions and refueling but denies access for humanitarian purposes.

Still, army-controlled checkpoints remain the reality. Humanitarian workers cannot just go around them, and have little choice but to be pragmatic. "There is a lot of public condemnation toward everyone, but if you want to work in Syria, you have to gain trust and remain neutral to the conflict," Krzysiek said. "Sometimes we fail, but we have to always keep pushing for access."

The story of Madaya isn't unique. While the world remains uninformed of their plight, or stalling in disagreement over who's to blame, hundreds of thousands of Syrians remain blockaded by besieging forces. Separating the facts from the agendas is a difficult but necessary first step to understanding and addressing the conflict.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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