Civilians evacuated from Moadamiyyat Ash Sham On Sunday
Civilians remaining in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham near Damascus say they are concerned for the fate of those who were evacuated from the town earlier this week, as well as for their own welfare as the regime’s siege and shelling continues.
The evacuations, which began at the start of the week, come amid reports of an increasing humanitarian disaster in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham, with several deaths from malnutrition. The regime has tried to overrun the opposition-controlled Moadamiyyat Ash Sham, strategically located near key regime military installations, housing and bases, for over a year. Assad’s forces imposed a total siege on the town in November 2012, refusing to allow food and medicines into Moadamiyyat Ash Sham. More recently, the regime turned off the water supply to the town. Residents say food supplies ran out months ago.
Qusai Zakarya, a translator who accompanied the UN chemical weapons team on its mission to Moadamiyyat Ash Sham, and who is now inside the town, told EA on Tuesday about the circumstances of the evacuations.
A Phone Call From Damascus
Zakarya said that on Sunday, the opposition authorities in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham got a telephone call from Damascus, from people who were originally from the town but were now with the Assad regime. The callers said that there could be a way to get women and children out of the town.
The opposition authorities decided to discuss the proposal with the town council.
“They thought it was better to give people a choice,” Zakarya explained. “After all, people are dying of malnutrition.”
A day after the telephone call from Damascus, however, Zakarya says people in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham were surprised to hear that two people from the Syrian Red Crescent had arrived at the Free Syrian Army checkpoint outside the the town, accompanied by two nuns from the Monastery of St James in Qara. The Mother Superior of the St James Monastery, Mother Agnes, has frequently accused the insurgency of atrocities, that the chemical weapons attacks of August 21 were carried out by insurgents, and that the footage of victims of the attacks was faked.
The Syrian Red Crescent workers and nuns arrived at the checkpoint with four buses, Zakarya said, and asked to be taken to the town council.
Chaos As Civilians Fear Aid Will Never Get Through
“When word spread among women and children, there was chaos, because a lot of people wanted to leave. Some people saw this as a sign that aid would never get in,” Zakarya relates, noting that the regime stopped shelling the town when the Syrian Red Crescent and nuns arrived.
Zakarya said that Free Syrian Army fighters escorted those women and children who wished to leave to the checkpoint where the buses had parked up.
“On the other side there were troops from the Assad regime and other people who had cameras,” he added. “They came to say that Bashar had freed civilians from ‘terrorists’. That’s ridiculous — just two weeks ago the Foreign Minister said that there are no civilians in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham. It’s a lie, just like when they lied and said they hadn’t used sarin on us.”
The nuns and the Syrian Red Crescent personnel told the Moadamiyyat Ash Sham town council authorities that they had arranged to take the evacuees — women, children under 14 and older people — to schools and shelters in Qudsaya (a regime-controlled town in Damascus Province). After that, the evacuees would be free to choose where they went next, the nuns promised.
The evacuees were driven to Qudsaya, where Zakarya says they met with regime personnel for another photo opportunity.
Allegations That Regime Questioned Evacuee Children
However, Zakarya says, circumstances changed for some of the evacuees after that.
“That same day, on Sunday, regime intelligence people took ten kids out of the school where they had taken them to question them. They asked for information about the Free Syrian Army and about activists,” he said.
Zakarya said that activists in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham have not been able to speak directly to the evacuees but have received reports that some of the children taken for questioning have not been returned to the school.
“We fear for their safety,” he said.
Shelling Prevents Evacuations
More busloads of civilians were evacuated on Monday, but since then the regime has not evacuated any more people, and has stepped up its shelling and air strikes on the city.
The Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) said Wednesday that they had not been able to evacuate more civilians from Moadamiyyat Ash Sham because of regime shelling:
— ICRC (@ICRC) October 16, 2013
“Not Even A Glass Of Water Has Gotten Into The Town
The Syrian Red Crescent told EA via Twitter on Wednesday that their aid workers have not been able to get aid into Moadamiyyat Ash Sham, despite multiple attempts.
— Syrian Red Crescent (@SYRedCrescent) October 16, 2013
The Syrian Red Crescent, which said it was not involved in negotiations regarding the evacuation, did not respond to a follow-up question asking who had blocked the aid. Meanwhile, sources in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham say that the aid is being blocked at regime checkpoints.
Other aid agencies like the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) have complained that they have had food supplies confiscated by regime forces, making it difficult if not impossible to get shipments through.
The head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, Magne Barth, says even though the Syrian Red Crescent, assisted by the ICRC, have been able to provide emergency food aid to the 2,000 evacuees in Qudsaya, the situation in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham is “alarming”.
“We call on the Syrian authorities to allow the urgent delivery of medical supplies to all areas under siege in Rural Damascus. In addition, all parties must ensure that the civilians remaining in Moaddamiyah are protected, that the sick and the wounded receive proper medical treatment and that those who wish to leave besieged areas can do so safely,” Barth said in a statement.
Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva, told EA on Thursday that the reason why the Syrian Red Crescent had not been permitted humanitarian access to Moadamiyyat Ash Sham was “unknown”.
“We’re calling on the Syrian authorities to allow the urgent delivery of medical supplies to all areas under siege in Rural Damascus,” Watson added.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Hisham Marwa of the Syrian National Coalition’s Legal Committee slammed the evacuations of civilians from Moadamiyyat Ash Sham as systematic displacement”, accusing Assad of conducting a “starvation war tactic” against civilians.
He added that “the people evacuated from these cities are placed in detention centers and large military camps under Assad’s control.”
The Syrian Coalition accused the regime of detaining young boys from Moadmiyyat Ash Sham and questioning them to gather information about Free Syrian Army movements in the city. Marwa said that the Coalition had warned the Syrian Red Cross “about the dangers of placing these vulnerable people under the care of the regime, but they have stated that they are just humanitarian aid providers and can do nothing to ensure the safety of these families”.
“We don’t know what will happen now”
Meanwhile, Zakarya said that the 10,000 civilians who remain in Moadamiyyat Ash Sham are frightened and hungry — and some are sick and starving.
“We don’t know what is going to happen,” he concludes.