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Syrians Trapped By Fighting Desperately Need More Assistance


We have an update now on the story of a city in a war zone, a city in Syria where people have been starving. Many thousands more are desperate.


The city is Madaya. It's one of several besieged communities where civilians were cut off from supplies. Aid trucks were finally allowed to roll in the last week.

INSKEEP: So we've been asking what, if anything, has improved. We called Elizabeth Hoff of the World Health Organization, and she began with the city as she saw it last week.

ELIZABETH HOFF: It was dark in Madaya. There was no electricity. And it was raining, so it was difficult. There was a whole crowd on the marketplace. They all were complaining about the lack of food. And they said that they hadn't eaten for several days. What we also observed were boys running after one of the lorries after they had emptied the bags - the food bags. And they were trying to lick their fingers and take the small grains of rice and corn that was left on the back part of the lorry after they had removed the bags.

INSKEEP: So signs of real desperation there a week ago. What improvements, if any, have you seen reported in the last week?

HOFF: What I have seen is that the people have received the food. But also, what we have seen in the clinic has been also signs of what they call re-feeding syndrome. These people threw themselves over the food, and they hadn't for a long time, so they got cramps in the stomach at the best, but also some of them got sick.

INSKEEP: Listening to you, I'm reminded that when you're starving and you get an opportunity to eat again, if you don't do it the right way, you can actually kill yourself, can't you?

HOFF: That's true. And we made sure that we were actually distributing leaflets in Arabic to inform people of this. But, you know, in this kind of situation, if you are tired like this, you don't have the energy even to read. You just throw yourself over the food. So this is always a risk.

INSKEEP: Have you considered taking the opportunity to get some or all of the civilians out?

HOFF: Well, this is not in WHO's hands. What we have done is issued a press release, and we have discussed with the authorities in Syria and the different parties to say that the only sustained way forward to making sure that there is continued access is to lift the siege.

INSKEEP: How does the situation in Madaya compare with other parts of Syria?

HOFF: We know that 450,000 people live in a besieged area. And we have 15 areas they are classified as besieged. And I'm also, at the moment, very much concerned about the Deir Ezzor city, in which there are almost 200,000 people, and they are besieged by ISIL. We haven't been in there for a couple of years. And we don't really know the situation, except from a starting point Deir Ezzor was much more deprived than Madaya. But we are seriously alarmed by the situation in all the besieged areas.

INSKEEP: You just described a city that you said has been cut off by ISIS for a couple of years. And while you may have heard rumors and so forth, you really don't know what's going on in there.

HOFF: No, we have contact with medical doctors who are there. And they are actually reporting to us that the situation is serious. There have been a couple of airdrops of food and medicine to the city. But unless you go in and observe the situation - like, what I saw in Madaya was really, very, very heartbreaking. So I don't want to say this is better, this is worse. What we are appealing for is lifting the siege in all these areas.

INSKEEP: Elizabeth Hoff of the World Health Organization in Damascus, thanks very much.

HOFF: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's coordinating aid efforts in Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.