As Syrian civilians readied to leave the city, aid groups prepared to deliver much-needed assistance to the beleagured city. But renewed fighting between rebels and government forces is threatening those plans.
It started optimistically on Friday (07.022014) morning. A bus with eleven civilians was the vanguard of around 200 citizens who are supposed to leave the embattled Syrian city of Homs in the next days. The Assad regime and the rebels agreed on a three-day-long ceasefire for the city. In a first step, children and teenagers under the age of 15 years and men and woman above the age of 55 years were to be evacuated, followed by the remaining inhabitants.
Those hopes almost went up in smoke when a truce between rebel fighters and government forces was broken Saturday when several mortars were fired, delaying aid convoys waiting to bring supplies to trapped civilians. The Syrian Red Crescent's team said it was "shelled and fired upon," forcing it to abandon two trucks. The UN's humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos said she was "deeply disappointed." On Sunday, shaken aid workers resumed operations.
City under siege
Pictures from Homs that reached the public were terrifying: thoroughfares lined with completely destroyed houses on both sides; streets turned into narrow paths by the fallen debris; people searching for food in the ruins. Aerial photos show quarters of the city that have been completely destroyed.
'Capital of the revolution'
The Syrian opposition calls Homs the "capital of the revolution." In mid-April 2011, around 60 people died in clashes between demonstrators and government troops in the city. On the following day, thousands of Syrians gathered in Homs' central square to protest against Assad. "Freedom is ours," they shouted. This day is seen as the first day of mass protests against the Syrian leader.
In the first months of the uprising, Homs was the city with the most fatalities. The quarter of Baba Amr, which is mainly populated by Sunnis, became a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In May 2011, the Syrian regime encircled Homs with troops and then systematically cut the city off from medicine, food and fuel.
In March 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in a report to the UN General Assembly.
"The brutal fighting has trapped civilians in their homes, without food, heat or electricity or medical care, without any chance of evacuating the wounded or burying the dead. People have been reduced to melting snow for drinking water," he said.
Aid held up by political hurdles
Before the evacuations, the opposition reported some 2,500 people in Homs. According to Homs Governer Talal Harazzi, just 83 made it out of the city before the ceasefire was broken.
Ewan Watson, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent's (ICRC) media officer for Syria, said in an interview with DW that his organization hadn't been able to enter Homs since November 2012. Even then the situation was disastrous.
"We can therefore only imagine what the situation is like now for these people," he said. The ICRC has received unconfirmed reports about acute needs for food, medicine and surgical equipment.
The ICRC has been prevented from delivering aid to the people in Homs for a long time, according to Watson. Neither the rebels nor the government would authorize or guarantee the safety of the ICRC's personnel, making it impossible to enter the city under these circumstances. Nevertheless, the ICRC is ready to deliver aid at any time. The disastrous humanitarian situation in Homs has been caused by the politics of the conflict. Logistically, delivering aid to the city is no problem.
"We have a team of 200 people permanently present in Syria," he said. "We have structures in Damascus and Tartus, and we have a warehouse in Homs. So in fact, providing aid to the old city of Homs would be a very easy thing to do."
Dan McNorton from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said in an interview with DW that the UN and its partners started preparations two weeks ago. Plastic sheeting, blankets, food and health care are "ready to go," he said.
Humanitarian act or political strategy?
It's still uncertain how many people will actually be able to leave Homs, especially for the male population between the ages of 15 and 55. Referencing an anonymous witness, the news broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported that these men have to surrender before they are allowed to leave the city.
It is still unknown what will happen to the people who stay in the city. The regime could declare them to be "terrorists" who should be fought with full force. One thing is clear: With children and women gone, Assad will not have to fear pictures of their deaths reaching the public, a victory for his regime in Syria's media war.