Thousands leave east Aleppo for camps in opposition territory: ‘These areas are not safe’

Hundreds of civilians, wounded and not, along with rebels streamed out of east Aleppo on Tuesday, the sixth day of a massive evacuation effort from the city’s last, blockaded rebel neighborhoods. For many, their ultimate destination will likely be camps in the opposition-held western countryside.

In wave after wave, thousands of evacuees are beginning their journey out of east Aleppo by bus. Their first stop is the opposition-held a-Rashideen district immediately southwest of Aleppo city. There, hundreds of medical and humanitarian aid workers based in opposition-held parts of Aleppo and Idlib provinces meet them.

Aid workers and medical personnel move the wounded to local hospitals or—in critical cases—to Turkey. Evacuees receive medical checks, food, water and other supplies. From there, some go to camps and shelters in nearby towns in the west Aleppo countryside. Others head to rebel-held Idlib province.

 An aid worker speaks with people evacuated from east Aleppo on Monday. Photo courtesy of UOSSM.

Nearly all relief organizations working in northern Syria are part of the response effort, being overseen by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a federation of medical and humanitarian groups. An emergency operations room delegates tasks between the organizations.

“This is an emergency, and it requires an emergency response, the unification of all efforts,” Ahmad a-Dabees, UOSSM’s Safety and Security Director on the ground in Aleppo tells Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal.

A-Dabees estimates that as of 1pm Damascus time on Tuesday, 19,300 people had been evacuated from Aleppo city to neighboring opposition-held territories “based on the records we keep while aiding displaced people.”

Estimates of the number of people evacuated from east Aleppo since Thursday, as well as how many civilians and fighters remain there, vary widely and are difficult to independently confirm.

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) tweeted that 25,000 people had been evacuated from December 15 until Tuesday. The same day, the opposition first-responder Syrian Civil Defense reported that 17,000 people had been evacuated from east Aleppo.

Rebel territories in both Aleppo and Idlib provinces are frequently bombed by Russian and Syrian warplanes. Three days ago, warplanes reportedly bombed the town of Maarat al-Arteeq, northwest of regime-held Aleppo city. In the Idlib countryside, a recent escalation in Russian and regime bombings killed more than 200 people in early December.   

“These areas are not safe from the bombings,” says a-Dabees. “In other words, people are still in danger.”

Q: Where are the evacuees taken? Are there camps and shelters that are prepared to receive this number of people? Can they be protected from aerial bombardment by Syrian or Russian planes?

Civilians are moving to camps, shelters and areas on the border with Turkey [in Aleppo and Idlib provinces]. These areas are not safe from the bombings. They have been repeatedly targeted. In other words, people are still in danger.

We need greater and more concerted efforts by [local and global] organizations, because we may need to accommodate a total of 60,000 displaced people from Aleppo city who could arrive in the coming days.

There are still thousands of civilians inside the city. Reports that the evacuation has ended are untrue. They aren’t refusing to leave east Aleppo, but there are not enough buses to get everybody out quickly. The evacuation also paused for more than 24 hours in recent days—it began on Thursday, ended on Friday, then began again on Saturday night.

We are still working to receive and accommodate the wounded, ill and civilians. In the future, a greater presence will be needed to prevent the areas that Aleppo residents shelter in from being bombarded, because they will be densely populated.

Most of the displaced are going to the Idlib border camps: Atma, Qah, Aqrabat and the Jabal Harim area. They are also going to camps, shelters and gathering points in the west Aleppo countryside.

 A child leaving east Aleppo on Thursday, December 15. Photo courtesy of UOSSM.

Q: How was the relief situation in these areas before the arrival of people recently displaced from Aleppo?

There were not enough aid and relief supplies in the first place. Now, with a potential increase of 50,000 people, it will be more difficult, especially because we are talking about more people coming. They need everything, from housing to clothing, furniture, aid supplies, food, everything. We will be under enormous pressure.

Q: How many people from east Aleppo would you estimate have arrived in opposition-held areas since Thursday? How do you arrive at these numbers, and how accurate do you think they are?

As of 1pm Damascus time on Tuesday, around 19,300 Syrians have entered opposition areas since evacuations began on December 15. These numbers are based on the records we keep while aiding displaced people. They are within a 5 percent margin of error, and are the most precise.

It is no secret that both civilians and rebels have been leaving east Aleppo. Some fighters left alongside civilians, but a large percentage of civilians inside the city are waiting for the buses.

More than 40,000 people remain in east Aleppo. There are dozens of testimonies on these numbers from people who have left the city, activists and others still inside.

Q: As for the injured, how many have left Aleppo? Have they been moved to Turkey, or do local hospitals have the ability to receive this volume of cases?

As of now, 650–700 injured people have arrived from east Aleppo, including critical, moderate and minor injuries. Some 90 critical cases have been moved to Turkey.

The medical situation is worse inside Aleppo, however. There are 40,000 people with no hospitals to absorb that number of the injured and wounded who need intensive care and advanced treatment. There are small, emergency medical facilities overseen by medical personnel remaining inside the blockaded city.

In the west Aleppo countryside and border zones to which the evacuees are going, there are hospitals but they have reduced capacity as a result of previous bombardments. They are under a lot of pressure already.

Q: Describe the challenges you are facing during your work with the evacuees.

Yesterday, after some buses were held for hours in the [regime-held] Ramouseh area, a huge number of evacuees arrived all at once. Sick and injured people were in the buses, among regular civilians, and not in ambulances. That bothered us a lot. It happened because there were so many people.

We had to move the injured on stretchers, both because there were so many of them and because they were interspersed with the civilians on the buses. We moved them 50 meters this way, which can be dangerous for some cases.

There are two things that we hope will be done right now: continued support for these people, and stopping the planes [from bombing] because of the high population density in the area.

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Note: A previous version of this interview stated that 13,300 people had left east Aleppo. Ahmed a-Dabees contacted Syria Direct after publication and said that he misspoke in the original interview. The accurate number is 19,300 people.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.