Syria evacuees: “All of their names will go to the mukhabarat”
BEIRUT // The Syrian government is recording the names of people being evacuated from Homs, prompting fears that the evacuees may be arrested and used as leverage against rebels and civilians who remain in the city.
The UN-brokered evacuation of civilians from a besieged area of the city continued yesterday despite concern over the fate of those leaving, with no guarantees in place against arrest by the authorities.
Syrian officials insisted on registering all 83 people who were evacuated from the Old City district on Friday, prompting concern they may be detained or interrogated at a later date.
“All of their names will go to the mukhabarat [secret police], there is no question about it, and we know the Syrian regime has arrested family members of rebels and opposition activists in the past, as a way of trying to get them to surrender – innocence is not a defence,” said a veteran NGO worker, who has been involved in international aid efforts throughout Syria since the start of the uprising in March 2011.
“Those being evacuated do not have any protection – once they are out of the view of UN officials, they are on their own,” he said.
According to the NGO worker, who is part of a major aid organisation, in 2012 international groups refused to hand the Syrian authorities names during a similar evacuation of civilians from Homs.
“The regime wanted names then and they were told, ‘no deal – if people come out they must be free to go’,” he said.
International NGO staff are often reluctant to speak openly about working conditions inside Syria because they rely on permission from the Syrian authorities in order to carry out their work. Visas are often denied to aid workers.
Peter Kessler, spokesman for the UNHCR, one of several UN agencies involved in the evacuation, in addition to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, confirmed Syrian officials recorded the names of all evacuees on Friday.
“UNHCR and Unicef protection colleagues witnessed the registration procedure by Syrian authorities and also conducted individual interviews to assess their state of health and needs,” he said. “We also asked questions to get a better idea of the humanitarian needs inside the city, particularly in the besieged areas.”
Once evacuated, the civilians were offered medical care, an aid package and transport – although not outside of Syria.
The evacuees were given US$150 (Dh550) each by the UNHCR and items such as blankets, plastic tarpaulin, mattresses, kitchen sets and hygiene kits. They were then taken to nearby areas of their choice, Mr Kessler said.
“We will follow up with them to check on their condition.”
Previous evacuations of civilians from siege areas have resulted in arrests, according to activists and aid workers, although details remain hard to pin down because Syrian refugees move frequently.
“We know that people, some of them children, were arrested after an evacuation of civilians from Moadamiya last year. It’s always a risk,” the NGO worker said.
“There is a difficult choice for them: stay in a conflict zone where they might starve or be killed in fighting, or leave and risk being arrested.”
At least 10 children under the age of 14 were evacuated from Moadamiya on October 13, some of whom were later detained by the authorities, according to residents of the besieged suburb on the south-western edge of Damascus.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, flagged the lack of protection for evacuees.
“I note regime statements this morning describing a willingness to evacuate ‘innocents’,” she said on Friday.
“Given that the regime, up to this point, has described just about anybody living in opposition territory as a terrorist and has attacked them as such, we have reason, on the basis of history, to be very sceptical and frankly very concerned about anybody who falls into regime hands who comes from a part of the country that has been under opposition control.”
The evacuations took place as part of a deal between the UN and the Syrian authorities that was on the agenda at peace conference in Geneva last month but agreed upon only after the talks ended. It includes a three-day ceasefire and a promise that humanitarian aid will be transported into rebel-held neighbourhoods that have been more or less cut off, and bombarded, for almost two years.
Humanitarian organisations have been trying desperately to get aid into areas under siege by regime forces, where people trapped inside have been dying of starvation.
Large areas of Homs, where more than 1.5 million once lived, have been reduced to rubble, and there is little firm information about how many people remain in the rebel-held area there. The UN hopes to get in food for 2,500 people during the pause in fighting.
At least one man who was evacuated was shot on the way out and another died from a serious medical condition, Mr Kessler said, without specifying who fired the shots.
“Most appeared in poor health and traumatised.”
Sana, Syria’s state-run news agency, said “armed terrorist groups” had trapped civilians in Homs for months.
It said residential centres had been prepared for evacuees, and that they would be offered medical care in state hospitals.
Government-run medical facilities have been criticised by human rights groups since March 2011, with the authorities routinely arresting wounded people they suspect of involvement in anti-regime activity.
Updated: February 8, 2014 04:00 AM