[An original version of this article was published in Arabic on the Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on May 5, 2017].
During its 55th plenary meeting on December 7, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly designated May 2 as the World Tuna Day, and invited all member states and non-governmental organizations to observe it. Thousands of tuna fishing vessels operate across the oceans while many countries depend heavily on tuna for different purposes, including food security and nutrition.
World Tuna Day brings to mind the tragedy of all the cities and towns that were besieged by the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, preventing access to food. Many people died of starvation, a widely documented war crime.
On this day, I cannot but remember the repeated episodes of the tuna scandal that took place in mid-March of 2016 and 2017, in Madaya and Zabadani, 45 km northwest of Damascus.
On March 17, 2016, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) delivered 7,800 food baskets to Madaya. Each basket carried a sign saying it contained five tuna cans.
When I tweeted the news on March 19, 2016, an ICRC official contacted me saying they had immediately sent a delegation to Madaya. When the delegation returned on the same day, he wrote me back confirming the news, but specifying that the number of missing cans was below 4,000 cans. He added that they would compensate Madaya residents and “investigate whether the loss was a result of negligence of their employees or theft.”
The same incident occurred again on March 19, 2017, according to local activists. This time I contacted ICRC, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and the World Food Program (WFP). I was told by a WFP official that they were “aware of some inconsistencies in the delivery of food supplies to Madaya and Zabadani during the inter-agency convoy mission on March 14, and that medical supplies were removed [too] and [we] reported it publicly [on] the same day.”
They reassured me that “WFP is in contact with the local committees in the two towns to further investigate [the issue] and will take all measures to rectify the error.” However, there was no reference to whose responsibility the “error” was.
Asad’s army and Hezbollah besieged Madaya and Zabadani between July 2015 and April 23, 2017, when opposition fighters and civilians were evacuated to Idlib in northern Syria. In the absence of food during the siege, 2,050 people suffered from kwashiorkor (a protein deficiency caused by malnutrition) in Madaya in 2016, according to a local field doctor. This is the reason why the ICRC was concentrating on supplying cans of tuna fish.
The scandal is reminiscent of the so-called Milk Petition which was launched in April 2011. The petition was signed by around 400 Syrian actors, writers and TV personalities at the end of April 2011. They called on the government to lift the military siege imposed on the southwestern city of Daraa and to provide its inhabitants, especially the children, with urgently needed food and medicine. A few days later, some of these figures were forced to appear on state television to apologize for the position they’d taken.
I feel a deep sorrow at the sight of human beings being forced to fight against starvation in the 21st century, especially in fertile areas such as Madaya, Zabadani and Daraa.
In fact, the Asad regime and Hezbollah not only used starvation as collective punishment against civilians, preventing access to basic aid, but they also robbed that which was meant for a hungry child or a sick elder.
Hezbollah media have aired interviews in which Madaya residents accuse armed opposition groups of selling aid to besieged civilians. However, UN humanitarian aid was seen at the pro-regime forces’ headquarters and checkpoints, as documented in videos published by activists during the opposition’s advance on the fronts of Damascus and Hama in March 2017.
It is ironic to hear international officials calling on Asad to stop robbing. In a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria at the UN Security Council on April 27, 2017, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said that “civilians are kept as prisoners until they die or kneel before the Syrian government” and “regime troops operate black markets” and “medical supplies that desperate people should be getting for free are instead sold at inflated prices.”
Ambassador Haley added that “the Syrian regime hides behind bureaucracy and denies requests for humanitarian access” and that “none of this is prevented or even opposed by Russia.”
During a news conference in Washington with his German counterpart, former US Secretary of State John Kerry said on February 29, 2016: “Our hope is that they [Asad regime] will also stop their people, their troops and their officials who get in the way or manage these shipments, from actually putting their hands into the shipments and taking out medicine or taking out other preferred items simply to keep for themselves.”
In Syria, between the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a popular political joke about president Hafez al-Asad'. It tells the story of a fisherman who came back home with a fish and asked his wife to cook it. The situation in Syria, not that different from the situation today, had reached an unprecedented economic decline. Therefore, the wife told the fisherman that she would not be able to cook the fish because she lacked cooking gas, fuel, and firewood. The fisherman threw the fish into the sea. The fish came out on the water surface with its fins raised up and began to chant like all the “crowds faithful to the militant comrade”: “With the soul, with the blood, we sacrifice for you, Hafez!”
On the World Tuna Day, we tell you Bashar: “Leave, tuna fish thief!”
The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect SyriaUntold’s views.