On March 15, the war entered its eighth year.
What was going to be the first aid delivery to besieged Daraya, Syria, in nearly four years has been blocked by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The convoy – organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent – was prevented on Thursday from reaching the city. Shortly afterwards, regime shelling killed a father and son waiting for aid.
“The Assad regime killed malnourished civilians waiting for aid. But there’s no question that the apathy and inaction of world leaders played a role in their deaths,” said Bissan Fakih, a spokesperson for the advocacy group The Syria Campaign.
“The father and son should never have been standing for hours waiting for food,” Fakih told Al Jazeera, noting that the Syrian government has used denial of food as a “weapon of oppression” against civilians since the beginning of the conflict. “This is state policy and nobody, not the UN, not the US, Russia or the rest of the International Syria Support Group, is doing anything to challenge it.”
Even before it was stopped, the planned aid delivery to Daraya had come under criticism due to its contents, which included medical supplies, vaccines, baby milk and hygiene items – but no food.
The convoy left Damascus at 11am on Thursday and reached the final regime checkpoint outside Daraya at around 1pm, according to the Daraya local council. At that point, government forces demanded that the baby milk and medical supplies be removed.
Negotiations between the two sides continued until the early evening, when the mission was cancelled and the convoy returned to Damascus. Soon afterwards, regime forces shelled the civilians who had been waiting for aid, killing a father and son and injuring five others.
Muhammad Shihedeh, a member of Daraya’s local council, told Al Jazeera that the shelling was probably an act of retaliation. “It was revenge, for daring to [remain resilient] all this time,” he said.
Until Thursday, the situation in Daraya had been largely peaceful since the ceasefire, Shihedeh added, despite occasional sniper attacks and mortar shells.
Daraya, which lies in western Ghouta outside the capital Damascus, has been under an increasingly tight government siege since 2012, with no access to essential services, such as running water and electricity. No vaccinations have been carried out during that time.
Only about 8,000 people remain in Daraya, which had a population of about 80,000 before the war. But what little food can be grown locally is not enough, locals say.
“The food we do have is about to expire,” Sumaia, a resident of Daraya who did not want to give her last name, told Al Jazeera, noting that she survives each day on a single serving of soup made from lentils, home-grown spinach and herbs.
We feel like we are being ignored. They just talk about Daraya without doing anything to help people here.
When a partial ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia, came into effect in parts of Syria in late February, it was conditional on the delivery of aid to besieged areas of the country. More than a million people are living under siege in Syria, according to the monitoring group Siege Watch. But while aid has been allowed to enter other besieged towns, Daraya has been denied access.
“We feel like we are being ignored,” Sumaia said. “They just talk about Daraya without doing anything to help people here.”
Often over the past few months, aid deliveries to Daraya have been planned only for the convoys to be held up at the last minute. The ICRC says it is hoping to organise another convoy soon.
“We are trying to do everything we can as soon as we can. We obviously don’t know when that will be, but we are in touch with everyone,” Krista Armstrong, the Middle East communications officer at the ICRC, told Al Jazeera on Friday.
“We had the green light from the government, it was all in order, and we hope that we can go back – not just with what we had, but also the delivery of other things that people need.”
In April, Stephen O’Brien, the UN emergency relief coordinator, said that the Syrian government was ignoring “countless” requests for aid to be allowed into Daraya. Locals and aid officials fear that the full extent of the situation in Daraya will be realised only after it is too late.
“We are heading towards starvation similar to what happened in the city of Madaya,” the local council said in a note posted to Facebook this week, referring to the deaths of dozens of starving civilians in Madaya in recent months.