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'People are eating cats': Starvation, deaths plague Syria camp

Sources say that in Yarmouk Camp, just south of Damascus, more than 80 people have died since the beginning of the year, most of them children. Editor's note: This slideshow contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

In a rare moment of cooperation between the Syrian government and rebel forces, aid agencies say hundreds of people were allowed to evacuate over the weekend from a suburb of Damascus where the nearly three-year-old civil war has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

The evacuation from Yarmouk Camp, a rebel-held suburb just south of Damascus, comes after 89 people, most of them children and elderly people, have died of malnutrition-related diseases since January 1, according to Jamal Hammad, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent. He said his count only includes cases with confirmed death certificates.

In a suburb of Damascus, the nearly three-year-old civil war in Syria has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

Children under the age of one and elderly people over 65 account for 60 percent of the deaths, he said.

Yarmouk Camp is a neighborhood of mostly Palestinians who fled to Syria in the 1950s and are now caught in the crossfire of the civil war.  The United Nations estimates that some 20,000 people remain there, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Hammad is one of multiple credible sources reached inside Yarmouk, including three relief workers and two photographers, who all said hunger is so severe there that people are dying in significant numbers. (The England-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said more than 80 people have died in recent months from both starvation and a lack of medical care.)

Hammad's wife Amal Ahmad, a trained x-ray technician who is also a relief worker, said that she is concerned that the rate of hunger-related deaths could soon spike, as many people are now in a weakened state. She said "many women have suffered miscarriages or died in childbirth due to extreme malnourishment."  Ahmad was one of several sources who described the situation as nearing a tipping point.
 
Some sources asked that their last names not be used out of fear for their personal safety, including Osama, a 26-year-old former graduate student in economics who is also a local relief worker.  He said that in Yarmouk, people are eating cats, grass and cactus they are so hungry.  

Snipers have shot people dead while they are gathering grass to eat, he said. Ahmad said these dead are being called “martyrs of the grass” in Yarmouk.

The situation has become so desperate, Osama said, that people are now drawing blood in fights over food, and he's afraid of what may come next. Asked to name his greatest fear, he said, "Maybe the people can eat each other. I don't know. I don't know. I can't imagine.  Before, no one can imagine that a family can just cook a cat. Now it's happened."

Hammad corroborated Osama's account about people eating cats. He said people have also eaten dogs.

In recent days, a small amount of food aid has trickled in through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Ahmad said this was the first actual food she and many she knows have eaten in at least four months. She said many people, especially children, had problems digesting the food since their stomachs are completely empty, and they vomited their first meals.

She said the few families who were able to get food aid are sharing it with families who were not as lucky, but the overwhelming majority of people in Yarmouk did not get any aid.  

Osama said some people are down to consuming only water. "Sometimes we do this...drink some water with some sugar or some salt and go back to sleep. But when you go to the street you will find maybe the people next door...they're dead," he said.

Photographs of emaciated children have emerged across the Internet in recent days, purportedly from Yarmouk. Sources confirm that photos obtained by NBC News are of children in Yarmouk, and were taken in recent days and weeks.

NBC contacted two photographers who also confirmed they are seeing children and elderly people terribly weakened by hunger. One photographer named Niraz took most of the photos shown in this report (see images above), including one of two young children wrapped in white, lying next to one another on a blue cloth. Niraz identified them as 4-month-old Leila Khaled and 25-day-old Rahaf. Osama said those two children died on Tuesday, and that children die in Yarmouk every day now.

An analysis of the photos by NBC News has determined there to be no obvious signs of digital manipulation.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said that while he cannot confirm the number of starvation-related deaths, there are "widespread reports of malnutrition" including children with rickets and anemia. He also said, "people, including infants, are eating animal feed."

Gunness said the aid allowed into Yarmouk so far is "shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these civilians," and called on Syrian authorities and all parties in the conflict to facilitate the rapid access of substantial quantities of food to civilians in Yarmouk.

A representative at the Syrian Consulate in New York City declined to comment on the situation, including why substantial quantities of food are being blocked from getting into Yarmouk.  

Relief worker Osama estimated that there are about five dozen rebel fighters inside Yarmouk among the thousands of civilians.

When asked if there is any pressure on these fighters to stop firing at the Syrian Army in an effort to get more food into the area, Osama said, "Yes, people make pressure but there is no reason to let children starve to death, no reason to siege all of this area."

Children cry "all the time, not just the night, all of the time," Osama said. "You can hear their moms also. Most families just spend their day just looking for anything to eat."

Asked what Yarmouk needs most, he said, "We need to save the children inside Yarmouk. Maybe send them out of Syria...our families will be happy, believe me. Just save the children."

Sharaf Mowjood, Ziad Jaber and Justin Balding contributed to this report.