After Homs Evacuations, Freed Families Hoping To Return To ‘Normal’

PHOTO: Syrian army soldiers look on as women walk towards a bus to evacuate the battleground city of Homs, Syria, Feb. 9, 2014.
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Last week, more than 700 civilians were evacuated from Homs, an outcome of concessions between opposition and government delegations made during peace talks in Geneva. The evacuations were conducted under a cease-fire agreement analysts say could be a model for future cease-fire attempts throughout the country. The released residents, mostly women and children, had been living in besieged areas of the city where food, water and medical supplies had been scarce for more than a year.

Razan Rashidi is a communications specialist in the Homs office of UNICEF. Speaking from Homs, she discussed the aftermath of the evacuations.

The total number of people evacuated was 1,366, including 332 children. Since the evacuations, some of the evacuees decided to [leave the city] while others have gone to other areas in Homs. But many men aged 15 to 55, and some of their families, were taken by [government troops] to a shelter, a school for internally displaced people that has been hosting IDPs in Homs for more than a year.

It’s like the other IDP schools in Homs: it is run by an NGO assigned by the government of Homs. It’s inside Homs, near the Old City. It’s less than 500 meters away from where [these people] were besieged. It’s guarded by government troops, and people aren’t allowed to leave.

The facility is hosting families who were already there, as well as those who have been evacuated. Some have been there for 18 months. The majority of people there now are these men and boys aged 15 to 55, though there are some families are living there as well. There are only a few women.

The families of the men come visit for a day at a time, then they go back to other areas of Homs or to the other IDP shelters where they live [freely]. Our main concern is young boys aged 15 to 18; U.N. agencies have been monitoring their situation. A number of them have been released so far. I’m sure [the men who chose to leave the besieged areas] were aware of the criteria of the agreement, that all men aged 15 to 55 would be checked.

The evacuees in the IDP school are fatigued, they are traumatized, they show signs of malnutrition, signs of trauma. UNICEF and other partners have provided clothes, food and other supplies. In collaboration with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, who are our main partners here, we have been doing psycho-social support for the children who are now living in the shelter. There are a lot of issues identified for specialized care, and we are working on that. We are also following up with unaccompanied children, trying to unite them with their friends and relatives.

Men who [left Homs during the evacuations and who] fit the criteria of being aged between 15 and 55 have been requested by the Syrian authorities, for what they call “security processing.” We have been advocating an earlier release for them. Some were released today; some have been released every day. But the first four or five days [post-cease-fire], nobody was released.

The families we met are hopeful that they will get to go back to normal. Women want to send their kids to school, men want to see their children. Some men haven’t gotten to see their children since the beginning of the siege. It’s heartwarming, the reunions between fathers and their children.

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