Desperate dash to safety from siege

By Lyse Doucet

People from Old City of Homs emerge from hiding as fragile truce holds - but their troubles are not over yet.

Six hundred days had passed under a punishing siege in the ravaged Old Quarter in Homs. It was the sixth day in a rebel-held area cut off by government troops. But a vital "humanitarian pause" to get more aid in, and bring more people out, could not and would not be rushed.

Last Thursday every minute mattered. Just past midnight local time, there was a rush and a roar in the dimly lit lobby of Homs' Safir hotel, situated in the relative safety of a government-controlled area. It was now the UN's field headquarters and unlikely nerve centre for implementing a temporary truce in a city that has seen some of the worst fighting.

Syrian intelligence official Deeb Zeitoun, the only brown suit in a swarm of black uniforms, swept past the scattered tables where the last stragglers lingered. Aid workers, journalists and spooks, hunched over computers, coffee and cigarettes, took note.

President Bashar al-Assad's man from Damascus had arrived to ensure nothing went wrong on this day of operations. He went straight into negotiations with the UN's resident humanitarian co-ordinator, Yacoub el Hillo and the Governor of Homs, Talal al Barazi.

A few kilometres way, in the ruins of the Old City, rebel commanders were in contact with the UN by telephone and Skype from basement bunkers in a wasteland where not a single building still stood intact.

And in distant capitals many were watching to see whether this deal to rescue the most vulnerable in the Old City would be wrecked by the most powerful. "The whole world is watching and people inside are waiting," el Hillo told me. "But the longer this mission goes on, the more sensitive it becomes," said the veteran UN official from Sudan, who has done time in many of the world's warzones. But he says he has never seen a scene as horrific as the Old City.

Barazi vowed the "truce would go on for as long as necessary to ease the suffering there".

By Thursday, 1200 people had managed to escape an ancient quarter once full of life and beloved by Syrians for its welcoming cafes and atmospheric alleyways. Now it's a forbidding enclave without electricity and running water, where food is scarce, and the last functioning hospital is known as "a place to die".

A deal negotiated between the UN and the warring parties was a rescue plan for women, children, the elderly, and ill. Men over the age of 15 and under the age of 55 were told that if they wanted to leave they had to send their names out first. "They were informed that ... they would be checked and within six hours they would be told whether they were on a wanted list," explained one official.

On day one of this truce, the first Syrians to timidly cross into a desolate no man's land between rebel positions and army posts came under sniper fire. On day three, hundreds of residents were transported across this last dangerous stretch in UN armoured vehicles. A day later there was a desperate stampede as residents hurtled toward the convoy, dragging bags bulging with belongings. Then they advanced nervously on foot, sandwiched between the two lines of armoured escort vehicles.

But it was the second day of this truce that loomed large. That Sunday, more than a dozen UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) workers barely managed to escape from the Old City with their lives. Mortars had landed in the distance, at midday local time, as soon as an advance convoy moved into the rebel stronghold. At dusk, when trucks carrying food finally reached the main distribution point, the missiles killed two people instantly and injured many others. Mortar rounds and gunfire then pinned down the aid team for hours.

Three tyres were blown on the armoured vehicle used by el Hillo, his deputy, Matthew Hollingworth, of the UN's World Food Programme, their Syrian driver and an Arab security adviser.

The UN flag that had covered the car's bonnet now lay flat across the front windscreen. Visibility was blocked except for a small hole. To get out of the vehicle to remove it meant entering the snipers' sight. "We have a choice," el Hillo told his driver. "We abandon the vehicle or we drive out at 80km/h." Drive out they did, in the darkness, in their eight-vehicle convoy. "I am your eyes," the security officer reassured the driver. Their crippled vehicle lumbered forward, lights full on. "Right! Left!" the security man barked from the front seat as he strained to peer through the window.

Sources confirmed these attacks were the work of a local paramilitary group known as the National Defence Force determined to scupper a deal it saw as feeding and freeing their enemies. "All the devils in this crisis will always try to hinder our work," Sarc's head of operations, Khaled Erksoussi, said from Damascus with a voice tinged with exhaustion and anger. There are no angels in this war, only what one aid official called "good people in a very bad situation" on both sides.

By Thursday, lessons had been learned. On the edge of the Old City, bundles of food and medicine were unloaded from lorries, and passed along a chain of Sarc volunteers on to two trailers. Supplies would be towed in by the UN's armoured vehicles. In the hours that followed we could hear occasional gunfire. "Are they okay?" I asked a UN official. "They're fine," he said. "They're unloading the food." Intelligence and military officials sped back and forth with the Governor and his entourage.

Christian clergy, black-robed and white-bearded, paced the dirt road, talking on mobile phones, worried expressions on their faces. "Some rebel groups inside are trying to stop members of our Christian community from leaving," George abu Zakhem, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Homs, said as he tried to oversee the rescue of 53 Christians.

Sources say that a small group of fighters, angry that they had not been consulted in the negotiations, were trying to hold some people back.

Then, as the sun started sinking in the sky, the empty trailers that had carried supplies in rattled by, and the UN's armoured vehicles rolled up. This time, they had taken people out to waiting buses.

Armoured vehicles shielded them from pro-government sniper fire. Three vehicles at the rear of the convoy were a defence against any moves by rebels inside the city. The heavy armoured doors then opened outside the reception centre, and so did a small window on a place left behind of untold privations. Young and old men lay bandaged on stretchers, or were eased into waiting wheelchairs.

Then three buses pulled up, their curtains drawn. People trapped for nearly two years waited a moment longer. Sarc volunteers again linked arms to form a protective tunnel through the waiting crowd. A stream of young men leaped out, anxious to disappear from view, as they hurried into the banquet hall. Soldiers leaned forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of men who had taken up arms against them.

A few children, with eyes that had long lost any sparkle, were the last to disembark, shepherded by anxious mothers.

Inside a cavernous banquet hall with empty fountains and shimmering chandeliers, young men gathered on one side along long wooden tables, their families on the other. They all fell upon their first proper meal for as long as they could remember.

"It was very, very, very difficult life, a miserable life," one man with a hollow face and shrunken shoulders told me as he sat with his wife and children, who didn't look up. "We were living on grass boiled with water."

All the children around the tables were brown-faced with the layers of dirt and grime that comes from not having water to wash.

When we approached a table of young men, one bravely piped up. "I am nervous and fearful of my future. I was stuck in the Old City and haven't done my military service." All the men were taken to a makeshift informal detention centre but also a shelter. Those with families all went together. UN officials were there to see how the men were faring, and to send a message that the UN was watching this process carefully. Barazi kept insisting most of the men would be freed, but some would be put on trial for "terrorism, criminal activities and sabotage". Food and medicine went in, and people safely came out. Now there is the nearly 2000 people still stuck inside the Old City, and the rest of Syria to worry about.

Lyse Doucet is the BBC's chief international correspondent.

- Observer

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