UNHCR aid reaches Syrian town cut off for three years

Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy delivers much-needed aid to 1,300 people in Al-Mleiha, a town near Damascus that has been largely isolated by fighting since 2013.

Residents of the besieged town of the Syrian town of Al-Mleiha receive humanitarian aid.  © SARC

DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb 02 (UNHCR) - Working in tandem with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), UNHCR has delivered crucial humanitarian aid to a rural town near Damascus that has been cut off by fighting for three years, stranding thousands of residents in dire conditions without clean water or fuel for warmth.

Some 26,000 people currently live in Al-Mleiha, a small town located on the eastern outskirts of Damascus at a strategic road leading to the Damascus airport. It has been largely isolated by prolonged fighting for the past three years.

The UN last delivered humanitarian aid to the area around the town in early 2013. However, occasionally limited commercial supplies of food and other commodities have been allowed into the contested areas to the east of the town.

On Sunday, a SARC convoy delivered non-food aid to more than 1,300 people living in the buffer zone around Al-Mleiha, in addition to food parcels provided by other humanitarian agencies. Volunteers reported dire living conditions inside the accessed locations, where families were living in shattered homes, burning plastic to keep warm.

"People were asking for extra plastic sheeting and blankets as they don't have any other means for heating their homes, many homes have been destroyed, with many families sharing residences with relatives and neighbors. They told us that they used to burn waste material to seek some warmth," said a volunteer.

SARC also reported that the local drinking water network had been damaged in fighting, leaving "people depending on hand-dug wells extracting water that is not always clean." The volunteer added that the town's sewage system is "completely damaged due to fighting and lack of maintenance."

Around 50,000 people lived in Al-Mleiha before the present crisis, although many have since sought safety in neighboring towns and villages. There are currently only around 26,000 estimated to be living in the town, according to UN reports, of whom 10,000 are internally displaced.

The people residing in the buffer zones accessed by the aid convoy, are mainly living in farmhouses lacking necessary infrastructure. Two of the three schools in the area have been destroyed and the third is not functional according to SARC.

UNHCR's assistance to Al-Mleiha included hygiene kits, plastic sheeting, sleeping mats, kitchen sets, and blankets, along with food parcels provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"These items are of crucial support to the residents of Al-Mleiha as it helps them reinforce their shelters and provide them with warmth in this cold season," said UNHCR's Senior Field Officer, Pablo Vizcaino.

The distribution of humanitarian aid to local residents will be continued periodically according to SARC. UNHCR, meanwhile, remains committed to providing humanitarian aid to all in need in Syria, where the conflict has been raging for five years.

"UNHCR is committed to delivering humanitarian assistance to all people in need all over Syria," said UNHCR's Representative in Syria Sajjad Malik. The recent access to Al-Mleiha "boosts hopes for upcoming regular deliveries of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people in Al-Mleiha and other besieged and hard to reach locations."

As the crisis in Syria nears its sixth year, up to 4.5 million people in the country still live in hard-to-reach areas, including some 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the humanitarian aid that they desperately need.

In 2015, UNHCR reached 3,213,275 people with core relief items that included, among other items, blankets, winter clothes, jerry cans, household items and diapers.

By Qusai Alazroni in Damascus, Syria