February 13, 2014

By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, Abdulrahman al-Masri and Gioia Forster

AMMAN: For the 1,400 Syrians evacuated from in Old Homs since Friday, the decision to leave their homes and risk government arrest after two years under siege marks surrender to an insurmountable foe: starvation.

“Hunger defeated us,” 64-year-old Abu Jalal al-Telawi said Wednesday, three days after evacuating Old Homs, the 13 rebel-controlled neighborhoods that have been encircled by regime forces since June 2012.

“They hit the place with missiles but we didn’t leave, they shelled us with mortars but we didn’t leave, they used tanks and snipers but we didn’t leave. But now there is no food left,” said al-Telawi, a butcher before the war.

The Syrian government had refused any humanitarian convoy access to Old Homs since November 2012 before granting a United Nations humanitarian convoy access to the city Friday, arranging a 72-hour ceasefire that has since been broken.  

BgIk8J4CIAAH2sg.jpgResidents of Old Homs line up for evacuation Monday. Photo courtesy of @GlobalPost.

As part of the deal, residents of Old Homs have had the choice to evacuate, or to receive food and medical assistance from the World Food Program or the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

In Homs, the World Food Program’s convoys have delivered 500 rations of food: enough for 2,500 people for one month and distributed ready-to-eat rations to citizens in the midst of evacuating.

“People have survived by eating grass, leaves, anything they could find; they have not had access to bread for 5 months,” a spokesperson for the World Food Program in Syria, Dina El-Kassaby, told Syria Direct.

“People evacuating the old city look exhausted, thin, tired, gaunt, weak and frail.”

The ongoing evacuation – and the one-time delivery of food and medicine to those who remain in the city – mark a humanitarian breakthrough United Nations aid workers hope can be replicated for the 250,000 Syrians living under siege across the country.Half of Old Homs’ 2,500 residents have chosen to leave, citing hunger.

“Colleagues have reported that children coming out of the old city were holding apples and bananas, not knowing what they are,” said El-Kassaby.

Once evacuated, citizens have been arrested and subject to government interrogation without any international monitors, with at least 390 people taken directly into custody.

"Young men aged between 18 and 54 will be freed today (Thursday)," the regime’s governor in Homs, Talal Barazi, told pro-Assad media, referring to last Thursday.

Reuters reports, meanwhile, that 220 people are still in custody.

Al-Telawi, who left because of hunger, was detained briefly. “They arrested me and another 57-year-old man and asked us a number of questions,” he said.

While hundreds of evacuees remain in government custody, al-Telawi was evacuated to al-Wa’er, a rebel-controlled neighborhood in the city of Homs.

For al-Telawi, displacement and the risk of arrest trumped the short-term assistance the approximately 1,000 citizens remaining in Old Homs have received from the World Food Program.

“This is only temporary relief, it will last for one month but then people will need further assistance. We need continuous access,” said El-Kassaby.

When the ceasefire in Old Homs ends, al-Telawi will be unable to return to what is left of his home, not only because so little is left of it after repeated bombardments, but because they regime will resume its encirclement, not letting anyone or anything in or out of Old Homs.

Today, El-Kassaby that not much is left in the 13 neighborhoods.

“People live in cellars and have built tunnels which they use to move between areas,” she said.

“People don’t have homes in old Homs [to return to] anymore,” she added.

Despite the scale of destruction, al-Telawi said, he would have stayed.

“We didn’t want to leave, we wanted food and medicine,” al-Telawi added. “The regime has been trying to displace us from Homs, from our homes, for 20 months. If we wanted to leave we would have left before the shelling and the siege.”

Now, al-Telawi joins hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians in the al-Wa’er district of Homs, where in November 2013 the Syrian government imposed a similar blockade tactic notoriously titled “kneel or starve.”

He won by starving us,” said al-Telawi, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

We went from one siege to another.”

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