Aid vehicles have simultaneously entered three villages in Syria, to the relief of civilians suffering from the effects of a months-long siege by the Syrian regime.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is delivering "food, medical items, blankets and other materials" to the villages of Madaya, Foua and Kefraya, in an operation likely to last several days. "The operation has been brokered by the U.N. with the agreement of different parties on the ground," the ICRC says in a statement.
In an audio diary, ICRC Syria spokesperson Pawel Krysiek described a haunting scene upon his arrival Monday in Madaya:
"The first impression is really heartbreaking. You see a lot of people in the street, some of them smiling to us and waving to us but many just simply too weak with a very very bleak expression, very tired. Right now the trucks are offloading as we speak.
"A while ago, I was just approached by a little girl, and her first question was 'Did you bring food? I hope that you brought food to Foua, Kefraya and to Madaya, because we are really hungry.' "
NPR's Alice Fordham tells our Newscast unit more about the three villages:
"Madaya has been surrounded by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for six months, and starvation is widespread. Foua and Kefraya are Assad supporter enclaves in an area held by rebels who have restricted aid."
As the Two-Way has reported, there have been recent reports of deaths in both regions. Foua and Kefraya have been getting "sporadic airdrops" from the Assad regime during the siege.
But in Madaya, food aid has been blocked since October. Doctors Without Borders said last week that 23 patients in its health centers have died of starvation since Dec. 1, including six under the age of 1.
The nonprofit says that "around 20,000 residents of the town are facing life-threatening deprivation of the basics for survival" and that its medics have identified "250 people with severe acute malnutrition."
Recent reports from Madaya say residents have been "eating leaves, grass and pets to survive," as we reported.
Marianne Gasser, the head of ICRC's delegation in Syria, called the aid distribution a positive development. "But it must not be just a one-off distribution," she says. "To relieve the suffering of these tens of thousands of people, there has to be regular access to these areas."
Gasser says there are "more than 400,000 people living in besieged areas across Syria."