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Doctor Says Syrian Town Is Starving For Food, Medical Care

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One of the weapons used in Syria's civil war is as old as warfare. The government of President Assad has laid siege to rebel-held areas of the country's largest city, Aleppo. Almost a quarter of a million people are surrounded. The same is happening in smaller places like Madaya, not far outside the capital, Damascus. And this is what a siege is like.

AMMAR GHANEM: They are starving people to death. Not only this, they are cutting water on them now. There is one area that, because of lack of electricity, people are using a well and a spring to get water. And the regime is trying to take control over these water resources. So he want people to die from thirst as well.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Ammar Ghanem is with the Syrian American Medical Society. He lives in Indiana now but grew up near Madaya and has family there. He says because of the siege supplies can't get in and people are trapped there. Dr. Ghanem joined us in our D.C. studio to talk about the humanitarian crisis. Welcome.

GHANEM: Thank you very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly are you hearing is happening? I mean, there are reports of people literally dying of starvation.

GHANEM: We saw picture of skeletons - children but look like dead while they still alive. We hear, like, a low, weak cry of children because they lack food and milk and any - things that keep them alive. So this is images came on the news media back on January of last year. And since that time, yes, some relief happened, but it's very limited. They only allowed some food and medicine convoys to enter Madaya. The total number entered over four months was only four convoys. But since last April - because the media, I mean, just forget about that area again, and they stop, I mean, delivering any more aid to Madaya.

MONTAGNE: Well, I also understand that there are not any real doctors there.

GHANEM: That's absolutely right because only what has left there is a dentist and a vet who is treating humans. We established a telemedicine group over the WhatsApp. And we try to communicate with them on a daily basis. Yes, we have some luck. For example, I'll tell you about the C-section case just happened two days ago that was operated by the vet. And he was successful to deliver twin babies, alive.

MONTAGNE: By cesarean...

GHANEM: By C-section...

MONTAGNE: ...Alive.

GHANEM: ...And that was under, you know, supervision and direction of a physician - OB-GYN physician here in the U.S.

MONTAGNE: On an app?

GHANEM: Yes. I mean, they just - I mean, the way - I mean, the - he had some experience. He had done some surgeries before - amputation, other surgeries. And as a vet, he had some experience with cutting and surgery. But that's what you have. You are faced to do it. You have no other options.

MONTAGNE: Well, for those who are surviving, how are they managing?

GHANEM: Well, I mean, they are suffering every day, I mean, their suffer is above imagination. One, for example, my cousin communicated to me, even you are part of this town, you know, you know people here and friends, but you cannot imagine what's going on here. He said that first suffer of people here, in spite that they allow some grains to enter Madaya, but people don't know how to cook it. You know, there is no electricity through the town for the last year or more. And they lack any energy resources they can cook with. There is no gas. There's no food - fuel, nothing available. The only thing available, and very scarce amount, is maybe wood. So they are using wood to cook.

But the price of this wood is very high. So he explained to me that the price of the wood will be about 500 Syrian pound per kilogram. Every day you need about six kilos to cook, so that's cost about 3,000 Syrian pounds, which is about $60, just to cook the food that they give to us. Where are we going to get that money from?

He said, I mean, children are suffering because the lack of food and lack of milk. And if milk exist, they given these milk in very, very small amounts only to children under 2 years old. Anybody who is above 2 years old, I mean, he will dream to taste the milk. He told me what you can imagine happening to these kids long time?

MONTAGNE: So you are in Washington, D.C., to try to bring the world's attention back to Madaya?

GHANEM: Yes, people of Syria are very, very, very upset with the United Nations position. Many people don't see them as a United Nation who is supposed to solve conflicts and restore peace. They see them, like, only as a large charity organization that has the resources but is still unable to help. They are so weak to the point that they cannot deliver milk to a crying baby in need.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Ghanem, thank you for joining us.

GHANEM: Thank you very much for your time.

MONTAGNE: Ammar Ghanem is with the Syrian American Medical Society.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this interview, Dr. Ammar Ghanem misspoke twice. He saw photos of starving children in the besieged town of Madaya, Syria, in January of this year, not January of last year as he said to NPR. He also miscalculated the cost of wood in U.S. dollars. After the interview was broadcast, he recalculated and determined that a day's supply of wood in Madaya would cost about $6, not $60.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
During this interview, Dr. Ammar Ghanem misspoke twice. He saw photos of starving children in the besieged town of Madaya, Syria, in January of this year, not January of last year as he said to NPR. He also miscalculated the cost of wood in U.S. dollars. After the interview was broadcast, he recalculated and determined that a day's supply of wood in Madaya would cost about $6, not $60.