Appalling hardship revealed in Old City of Homs

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(UNHCR) – In one of the most challenging aid operations of the Syrian conflict, UN agencies and partner organizations continued on Friday to deliver food and medicine to the besieged Old City of Homs and to evacuate residents who chose to leave.

Discussions were under way for a “humanitarian pause” agreed at peace talks in Geneva between the rival sides to be extended for a third time. By Friday, UN agencies and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had delivered enough food to sustain a population of 2,500 people for a month and evacuated 1,366 people from the Old City.

Valerie Amos, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), praised the operation before the UN Security Council. But she also urged that more be done to allow desperately needed access to some 250,000 people in other besieged towns and 3 million in hard-to-reach communities across Syria. “All parties are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians,” she said.

The operation in Homs is the first of its kind in the Syrian conflict. The community in the Old City, including some 4,000 residents, had been under siege for more than 18 months, living in a landscape of blasted buildings and rubble. UN aid workers say they are seeing signs of severe malnutrition among those being evacuated.

Survivors speak of starvation conditions. “The situation inside [the Old City] was very difficult and desperate,” one elderly man with long straggly hair and a grey beard told an interviewer, looking exhausted after his ordeal. “We were eating leftover wheat, the stuff we used to throw out before, and any plants that naturally grow, in addition to anything we could grow ourselves . . . leftovers of anything we could pick up, anything to just keep us alive.”

“The shortages are hard to describe,” he said. “We had no energy to do anything. We were only able to give the body maybe less than 10 per cent of what it needed to function properly. We were short of so many things – protein, sugary foods – we were eating plants, just surviving in the most basic way.”

One UNHCR worker in Homs called the condition of some of the evacuees “beyond belief.” One man who had been evacuated told an aid worker: “Dying there, dying here – I prefer to die here.”

“We managed to get people out of hell,” a UNHCR worker said of the joint operation carried out with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), OCHA and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

To avoid trucks being incapacitated by hostile fire as they crossed into the Old City, the WFP was delivering food in large trailers during the week. A convoy carrying aid into the city last weekend was fired on and several trucks damaged or destroyed.

Those being evacuated are being taken to a reception centre in a disused school where they are given food packets and US$135 in cash. Under the terms of the original agreement that established the ceasefire, only women and children and men over the age of 55 were permitted to leave the Old City.

Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from the Old City of Homs this week. The operation was made possible under a ceasefire agreement between the rival sides in the Syria conflict.(UNHCR)

Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from the Old City of Homs this week. The operation was made possible under a ceasefire agreement between the rival sides in the Syria conflict.(UNHCR)

In recent days many men under 55 have fled as well. As of Friday morning there were 381 in the school, where they have been questioned by Syrian government officials. A total 170 have so far left the facility after being screened. UNHCR protection staff are collecting basic biographical data and the intended destination of the men and boys, and calling on the government to safeguard their rights.

“We are very concerned about the fate of these men and boys once they leave the facility,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming said in Geneva. “We are consistently calling on the government to respect international humanitarian and human rights law.”

She added that the refugee agency was also calling “for safe passage for civilians and humanitarian access to all besieged areas in Syria.”

By Andrew Purvis in Beirut, Lebanon(UNHCR)

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