11 Feb 2014

Homs evacuation: barely a truce, nowhere near a ceasefire

If you’re a man, you’re a suspect. It’s as simple as that. Men aged 15-55 in Homs Old City were not part of the agreement between the Syrian government and the rebels to allow people out of the besieged suburbs. The pictures show small groups of women and children making their nervous way past barricades constructed from oil drums, planks and debris.

And yet yesterday men started to come too. “Hunger drove us out,” said one man filmed by an activist. It’s a problem for the UN, which is trying to ensure that the evacuees are safe. According to Matthew Hollingworth of the UN World Food Programme, who is in Homs overseeing the operation, some 300 men in this age bracket have emerged so far.

“They’re being segregated and taken for processing by the authorities to work out who can be released and who put through a judicial process. We have registered them all so we can keep track.”

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I wonder if they really can. One hundred men have been released and given new ID cards. The remaining 200 are still being questioned. In the past, men who came out of besieged suburbs have been detained on suspicion of being rebels or just opponents of President Assad, and the fear is that they may have been tortured. It’s hard to see how the UN can guarantee the safety of these men from Homs if they are imprisoned by the authorities after this operation is over.

The governor of Homs seems to want the evacuation to work, but journalists on the ground report that other regime loyalists are furious about the operation to relieve the siege of the Old City.

They accuse the rebels of kidnapping Alawites, members of Assad’s minority sect. Over the weekend, the relief effort was disrupted by sniper fire and mortars, believed to have come from the Nationl Defence Force, a paramilitary group loyal to Assad that has been accused of widespread atrocities.

Matthew Hollingworth points out that Homs is just one of many besieged areas where civilians are starving and in desperate need of medical and other supplies. “We hope that Homs will be an example which we can build on for the whole country,” he said.

Yet this operation, in which 11 civilians have been killed and others, including a Red Crescent driver, have been wounded, shows how hard it is to establish even a limited humanitarian corridor in Syria. So far 1,200 people have been brought to safety. The UN estmates that between 1,000 and 200 remain. Some have chosen to stay despite the hunger and hardship.

The fear now is that after the humanitarian operation is over, the government forces and the NDF forces will start a new assault on the Old City of Homs. This is barely a truce and it’s nowhere near a ceasefire.

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