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UN owes it to Syria's children to act

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"In our failure to ensure that people in Syria are getting the food and basic supplies they need, we condemn children to hunger on top of the horrors of war." Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Desmond Tutu highlights how Syria's civil war is exposing families to extreme deprivation. He urges world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly this week to ensure life-saving aid reaches those in need.

Noor – not her real name – is a heavily pregnant 22-year-old Syrian with an air of relief about her. Just two weeks ago she arrived, hungry and exhausted, to the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, with her three children in tow.

Hunger finally did what continuous violence hadn't so far and forced the family from their home because there simply was no more food to be had. They trudged for five nights to escape their homeland, afraid to travel during the day for fear of shelling.

In the camp, Noor carefully holds her baby, Yazan (also not his real name), who is thin. Too thin. Diagnosed with severe calcium deficiency, Yazan has yet to develop any teeth – despite being more than a year old.

Since the war started in Syria, the country has slowly disintegrated. More than one-third of hospitals have been destroyed, according to the World Health Organization. According to Save the Children, 3,900 schools have been destroyed, damaged or are occupied for non-educational purposes since the start of the conflict.

Syria today is no place for a child and, outrageously, more than 1 million have already been forced to flee with their families to camps and host communities in neighbouring countries. Those are the lucky ones – thousands upon thousands have already been killed. Where is the outrage?

And every child forced out of education, or forced to flee, or whose development is stunted like Yazan's because of this conflict is a thorn in our collective conscience. The international community is not only failing to bring a peaceful end to this conflict but we are compounding that failure by neglecting to address its dreadful consequences. In our failure to ensure that people in Syria are getting the food and basic supplies they need, we condemn children to hunger on top of the horrors of war.

Families trapped inside Syria are today witnessing some of the worst violence yet seen in the 2½ year conflict. Whole families cannot get access to the aid they desperately need and when their voices are heard they tell of a desperate struggle to survive, living under bombardment, the threat of violence and ever-dwindling supplies as the war chokes Syrian cities.

The situation is bleak for families trying to feed their children. Save the Children this week releases a report that shows how a lack of food combined with soaring prices is exposing the children of Syria to a serious risk of malnutrition. Until recently a food exporter, now 4 million Syrians – half of them children – are in need of emergency food assistance. As the destruction continues, this number will grow. Children who three years ago could rely on three healthy meals a day will now go to bed hungry, afraid, and all too aware that they have been abandoned by the world outside. There are already cases of children dying in Syria because they couldn't get enough food or medical support. Where is the outrage?

Even where there is food available, Syrians face an appalling choice: slide into hunger or put themselves in the line of fire. There are widespread reports of people being targeted while queuing for bread. Imagine it: hungry, desperate and under fire.

At the United Nations General Assembly this week, our leaders must recognise the human cost of this war. They must recognise the need to use their global platform to bring the world's attention to this crisis and get agreement for life-saving aid to get to Syria. They must recognise our outrage over how thousands of our bright and innocent children are being flung into the chasm of human hatred.

In Syria, they have an old saying: a narrow place can contain a thousand friends. The children of Syria are in a narrow, dark place. We must be their friends. We must get them help. We must end this war.

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