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Middle East

Syria's White Helmets blame Assad regime for hunger crisis

Syria's White Helmets are sounding the alarm. In light of ongoing UN-led peace talks, the civil protection organization is calling for increased civilian safeguards and more international pressure on the Assad regime.

"Hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped and crowded areas, as well as medical centers, are being shelled daily," Raed Al Saleh, head of the Syria Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, told DW. The heaviest damage is being inflicted upon areas where the White Helmets are most active, with the goal, according to Saleh, of killing as many people as possible and hindering the work of those seeking to help.

In September 2016 the White Helmets were honored with the Right Livelihood Award, often erroneously referred to as The Alternative Nobel Prize, for their work in rescuing civilians caught up in the Syrian civil war. Saleh has no expectation that peace talks in Geneva will improve the situation.

"For years and years the White Helmets have been calling for a stop to military operations and for a solution that could save civilian lives," he said. Instead, Saleh believes what is happening is actually the opposite: "The Syrian government is far from moving toward a solution. It is still practicing the policy of submit or starve."

Stockholm Right Livelihood Award for White Helmets (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Sandberg)

Saleh and the White Helmets were awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2016

Children going hungry

Children in Syria's East Ghouta region, for instance, are suffering through the country's worst hunger crisis since the civil war began in 2011, according to the United Nations. On Wednesday, the UN children's aid organization UNICEF announced that 11.9 percent of all children under the age of five in the region were suffering from acute malnutrition. In January of this year the number of malnourished children in the rebel stronghold, which has been under siege from government troops since 2013, was 2.1 percent.

UNICEF says that ongoing fighting, lack of aid deliveries and skyrocketing food prices are to blame for the dramatic worsening of the situation. A recent report found that roughly one-third of all children in the area are also suffering from stunted growth as a result, thus increasing the likelihood of disease and premature death. Some 400,000 people are living under siege in the region, located on the eastern edge of Damascus, half of them children.

Pressure from international community

Saleh has called on the international community to act in order to avert a humanitarian crisis. "It is urgent that pressure be put on those besieging civilians," he said. "They must open humanitarian corridors and allow medical evacuations in critical cases."

He also asked for more international support for the work done by the White Helmets. Additional training and equipment for volunteers, he said, would help save lives and increase his teams' effectiveness in conflict zones. Saleh added, however, that "under current circumstances no support will ever be enough. We are living under inhuman conditions."

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