Residents of a Syrian town a few dozen miles from the capital, Damascus, say they are dying of starvation as a result of a months-long siege by forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Families are eating leaves, grasses and water flavoured with spices in the town of Madaya, where rice is sold by the gram because a kilogram costs as much as $250 (£170). Some have killed and eaten their pets.
“People are dying in slow motion,” said Louay, a social worker from the town told the Guardian in a phone interview, his voice weakened by months of abject hunger. “We had some flowers growing in pots at home. Yesterday, we picked the petals and ate them, but they were bitter, awful.”
He sent pictures of emaciated bodies of several elderly men, recent casualties of the starvation. He had not taken the pictures himself, but said the men were well known in the town.
“We used to say nobody could ever die from hunger, but we have seen people actually die of hunger.”
Other activists inside the town also shared pictures of starving children, one being pushed in a buggy far too small for him because he is too weak to walk.
Others who can still move around, and should normally be in school, are risking their lives trying to collect plants in minefields around the town’s outskirts, and several have lost limbs, residents said.
It was not possible to verify their claims because of the siege, but several independent accounts were consistent in describing life in a town desperately short of food, medicine and electricity.
“Whether you are a man, woman, child, whether you’re 70 or 20 years old, you will have lost about 15kg of your weight,” said Ebrahem Abbass, a defector who had served as a sergeant in the Syrian army. “You don’t see a child whose eyes aren’t sunken and staring from hunger.”
Up to 30,000 people have been trapped in Madaya since July, under a tight siege by pro-government forces. They say they are being treated as pawns in a complicated power play, punished for the suffering of two villages hundreds of miles away at the hand of anti-government troops.
In the spring of last year, a rebel coalition known as Jaysh al-Fateh captured large swaths of north-western Syria from the Assad regime, surrounding two Shia enclaves in Idlib province called Fua and Kefraya, whose citizens are also enduring a debilitating siege.
Assad’s forces are now starving Madaya and neighbouring Zabadani, once a stronghold of the opposition, after a punishing six-month campaign.
Under a ceasefire deal, foreign backers of the government and the opposition are attempting to orchestrate a population swap, essentially a peaceful “sectarian cleansing”.
So far they have only managed to agree on an evacuation of wounded individuals on both sides and safe passage for a single aid delivery in October.
That allowed convoys to reach Madaya, Zabadani, Fua and Kefraya simultaneously, but supplies only lasted a few days, residents said.
“I swear by God, and you might not believe me because it sounds fantastical, I tried to buy some food today, but a kilo of rice is 100,000 [Syrian] pounds,” said Louay. “A kilo of rice, bulgur, lentil, sugar – 100,000, 100,000, 100,000. That is if you can find it.”
At the black market exchange rate that would be close to £170 for rice.
“I’ve personally seen people slaughtering cats to eat them, and even the trees have been stripped of leaves now,” he added.
People are so weak that they often faint, and hunger is made worse by the biting cold in an area about 1,300 metres above sea level, near the border with Lebanon.
Though a wooded hill is nearby, snipers have a clear shot, and residents said more than a dozen people had been killed trying to retrieve firewood. They also said children had lost limbs trying to gather grass to eat from nearby fields.
“They blocked all the roads to both towns, and there are a lot of mines,” said one teacher in Madaya, who did not want to give his name because of relatives in areas under government control. “There is no way to explain, the students are always complaining they are hungry, but they have to study.”
An aid official who visited Madaya and Zabadani in October as part of the convoy said he saw “deep suffering”.
“There was a very dramatic appeal from the children in those two places, and the same dramatic appeal from Fua and Kefraya,” he said. “The children should not be suffering.”
The official said he hoped for more agreements to deliver aid. But for now, the people in all the besieged towns suffer in a tragedy that is not of their making.
“Here, we no longer call on anyone,” said Louay. “We have called for help so many times and nobody has heard us. But we want to ask the officials and decision-makers out there, if you were in this position, and your children were dying from hunger in front of you, what would be your reaction to the world outside that let you down? Don’t forget to ask your readers this question.”