“The suffering is far from over” – the evacuation of eastern Aleppo

Syrians evacuated from Aleppo during the ceasefire arrive at a refugee camp in Rashidin, near Idlib, Syria, on 19th December 2016. Photo: AP / PA Images

The evacuation of eastern Aleppo 
got underway at noon on Thursday 15th December with the departure 
of 13 ambulances and 20 green buses. The most severely injured went first, along with their families and other civilians. By the end of the day, about 3,000 civilians had been moved out of the devastated Syrian city. As the operation began, Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian adviser for Syria, estimated the total number of citizens requiring evacuation at 30,000.

Georges Comninos, a veteran aid worker at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been appointed as the organisation’s head of office in Aleppo only a month earlier. For him, the start of the evacuation was the first time he was allowed into the neighbourhoods which until just days earlier had been the last strongholds of Syrian opposition fighters in the city. He has three decades of experience in war zones in countries including Libya, Iraq and Lebanon, but describes his experience in Aleppo as “one of the most trying experiences that I will ever have”.

The humanitarian consequences of this war are immense”—Georges Comninos

“[At the departure point] there were thousands of people in a state of shock, desperate to get out of eastern Aleppo,” recalls Comninos. “People were very concerned and kept asking us, ‘When do you think we’ll be able to leave?’ They were pushing each other while boarding the buses. I spent one night there and what really struck me is that people refused to come down from the buses when it became clear that the operation had been suspended and it was impossible to move. They spent the whole night on the buses while hundreds if not thousands of people were waiting around them, lighting fires to keep warm in the freezing winter temperatures.”

“It was extremely sad to see such an amount of suffering by people in a completely desperate situation. The humanitarian consequences of this war are immense,” says Comninos. “The only positive thing was that although there was a lot of anxiety for the near future, at least there was no longer a situation of intense fighting and people being in constant fear for the immediate safety of their families.”

The ICRC had been called on by both sides in the conflict to act as impartial facilitators in the evacuation, along with humanitarian body the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. They operated against the backdrop of a fragile ceasefire, with flare-ups of violence occasionally interrupting the evacuation.

 

Besieged Aleppo had dominated the headlines in the West for weeks before the start of the evacuation. The city had been divided in 2012, when the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s government had taken control of the eastern part while forces loyal to the government held on to the west.

The rebels had made significant advances over the years, but airstrikes by a Russian-led coalition put them on the back foot from 2015 onwards. In recent months, Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces had intensified the campaign to wrest Aleppo back from the opposition, pushing rebel fighters and civilians into ever smaller pockets of the city through relentless bombing campaigns.

Civilians were being shot on the spot, said the UN, who described the situation as ‘a complete meltdown 
of humanity’”

“What I saw was only the very last part. [The people who I met during the evacuation] had been displaced on multiple occasions; they had moved around from one area to another,” Comninos says. “And all this was happening in a very densely populated area, where all basic infrastructure was either severely damaged or destroyed – it was a very dire situation.”

The last operating hospital in eastern Aleppo was destroyed in airstrikes on 18th November. When the government moved into the last rebel-held areas on Tuesday 13th December, the UN reported that civilians were being shot on the spot, describing the situation as “a complete meltdown 
of humanity”.

An initial ceasefire brokered by the Russian military and Turkish intelligence failed to take hold after shelling continued in the face of Iranian opposition. But two days later the buses started rolling at last. The operation would take eight days to complete and by 22nd December around 35,000 civilians and opposition fighters had been evacuated to the rural areas outside Aleppo, which are still under rebel control. Whether they’ll be safe there is difficult to say.

Photo: AP / PA Images

 

“Syria is still at war. We feel like we at least alleviated the suffering of these people a bit after what they’ve endured over the past months,” Comninos explains. “But that suffering is far 
from over.”

Meanwhile, Aleppo is no longer a divided city – but it remains a devastated one. “[In the east], there’s a total absence of basic services. There is no water, no electricity and no medical care. Along with our partners, we are distributing approximately 45,000 hot meals every day and providing emergency humanitarian and medical 
assistance,” Comninos says. He explains that the 35,000 people evacuated by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were only those who were too scared or unwilling to leave sooner. Many residents had already fled in the months leading up to December. Comninos estimates that around 400,000 people from Aleppo are displaced today.

There’s not a single Syrian family that has not been affected by this conflict”—Georges Comninos

And despite the widespread destruction, Comninos says that some of the people who left before the evacuation are now returning. “There’s no longer a [division between] east and west and naturally many people would like to go back to where they used to live. So some are returning to see the state of their house, and to 
see if it’s feasible to return,” he says. “It will be 
a very long process.”

“Even if the war stops today there will be immense work to be done in order to recuperate, to be able to resume so-called normal life for millions of Syrians. There’s not a single Syrian family that has not been affected by this conflict. Frankly, it’s difficult to be optimistic.”

 

 

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