Residents have been trapped in the small town of Madaya in Syria for about 15 months — in what can be described as an open-air prison, where people can’t leave and there is little communication with the outside world.
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Syrian government forces and their allies have besieged Madaya, implementing laws that prevent residents from ever leaving the largely Sunni Muslim town. The government in Damascus claims Madaya is home to fighters opposed to the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
ABC News made contact with one family stuck in Madaya, fighting to survive as residents battle food shortages, unsanitary conditions and sniper fire. For their safety, we are not identifying the family, and refer to the family matriarch as Madaya Mom. Through text messages and phone conversations, a heartbreaking picture of unimaginable suffering emerges.
Meet the Family
Madaya Mom is actively working with her husband to protect their five children from the dangers that have become a part of their daily life.
The children, a mix of girls and boys, range in age from a toddler, who was born after the start of the war in Syria, to a high school-aged student.
We have learned snippets about their personalities from Madaya Mom, but are choosing to keep some details private to keep the family from being identified.
There was a glimmer of hope when Madaya Mom’s eldest daughter was allowed out of Madaya in order to take her exams with fellow ninth-graders.
"When she was out there everything was available, even ice cream, which we are deprived of here, and all kinds of food,” Madaya Mom told ABC News of her daughter’s trip. “She told me it was like being in another world, there was plenty of water and electricity, everything was available, but she told me she felt food was tasteless because she was eating while we are besieged and deprived of food."
Even though the local school had long been shuttered, Madaya Mom's eldest child was able to perform well on the tests.
One of the daughters is the family performer, and before the siege, she was the entertainer of the group.
"Before the siege, her older siblings would film videos of her singing. Does she have a beautiful voice? Not exceptionally, but she has a presence!" Madaya Mom said.
One of her sons emulates his father and likes to act like a little man with responsibilities, but also has an interest in fashion.
"He loves to take care of his looks. Before the siege, he used to buy his favorite cologne with his pocket money. And he had been saving up his allowance to buy a watch he really liked, but he didn't get a chance to buy it before the siege started. Now he refuses to spend that money because he says as soon as the siege is lifted, he is going to buy that watch," she said.
How They Survive
One of the biggest daily concerns is the dwindling supplies. Aid convoys are very rarely allowed into Madaya, meaning that Madaya Mom and her family have to stretch their supplies out for sometimes months at a time.
"Today our one meal was rice and bean soup," she said at one point in January. "Our bodies are no longer used to eating. My children are hungry but are getting sick — severe stomach pains from the food because their bodies aren't able to digest and absorb the food because they were hungry for so long."
"When we wake up, we drink mint or thyme tea from the garden with a little bit of sugar. It keeps the children from being hungry for a while," she wrote.
There was a food distribution convoy allowed into the town in October 2015, and then four different aid convoys were allowed back in mid-January. Reports are sketchy about how many convoys have arrived since then, but the World Food Program announced this week that it had been able to deliver "life-saving food" to Madaya and three other towns.
The WFP said that the Sept. 26 delivery was the first humanitarian aid and food that had reached the town since April. Madaya Mom has told ABC News that they did receive some aid as part of the WFP delivery, but she did not specify what they received.
In the depths of winter, heat is another concern.
The family told ABC News that a gallon of fuel cost the equivalent of $8.64 before the siege, in July 2015. In January, shortly after brief snowstorms, it cost about $90 per gallon.
When ABC News was first in touch with Madaya Mom, she and her husband were waking up in the middle of the night to break up the closet for firewood. They had already used their big dresser.
The heat of the summer helped assuage those particular concerns, though as they head back into fall and winter, the solution will not be the same as they have already gone through the wood furniture that they had.
A new threat emerged in the lives of those trapped in Madaya in August.
"About two weeks ago, a new ghost appeared: the sniper,” Madaya Mom wrote.
"Snipers posted all around the edges of town started taking shots at women and children and the elderly, out of nowhere. But what is most striking is that the injuries are nonlethal. It's like they don't want to kill them, just scare them," she added.
"Imagine I send my son and husband to get some drinking water and I anxiously await their return, praying they're not shot by the human hunter. We now know what birds feel like during hunting season," she wrote.
For Madaya Mom, the snipers have almost forced her to reach a tipping point, and while she still has hope, there is an element of confidence that has come through amid the chaos.
"The snipers continue to hunt us day after day, and the living conditions are lousy, no food, no water, no security, but you know we have found a new sense of dignity. We no longer are afraid. We'd prefer to die than to surrender," she said.