Thousands of evacuees depart besieged town but fear ‘catastrophic’ situation awaits
By Mohammad Al-Hamadah and Avery Edelman
AMMAN: A convoy of about 2,000 residents departed a besieged neighborhood in northern Syria on Tuesday as part of a surrender deal between the opposition and the Syrian government.
Evacuees worry, however, that their destination is not prepared to host them.
The evacuation convoy is the fifth to depart Waer, the final rebel-held neighborhood in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city and a former focal point of the revolution.
Tuesday’s convoy includes 465 families, among them about 1,850 civilians, 250 fighters and a number of disabled and injured persons, pro-opposition outlet Enab Baladi reported.
Thousands of residents have already departed Waer as part of the Russia-brokered surrender executed on March 13, which calls for the evacuation of opposition fighters and civilians from the neighborhood.
Those residents have now reached other opposition-held areas of northern Syria including al-Bab and Jarablus in Aleppo province and various areas of Idlib province.
The fifth batch of evacuees is also headed for Jarablus, a town located along the Turkish border which has been controlled by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) since it was taken from Islamic State control last August under the Turkish army’s Operation Euphrates Shield.
Although the evacuees were scheduled to depart Monday, their convoy was delayed to Tuesday due to the Syrian government’s security checks on luggage, according to Akhbar Alaan.
Each person was permitted to bring two medium-sized suitcases in addition to one backpack with identification papers and personal belongings, which could be taken onto the bus with them.
“Catastrophic” situation in Jarablus camp
Waer residents in the latest round of evacuees worry that the conditions in Jarablus will not be suitable for them after hearing from fellow evacuees who departed in previous convoys, the first of which left on March 18.
Those earlier evacuees were surprised when they found that the Zogara camp near Jarablus, meant to host them, was far from ready.
Khaled Al-Omar, who spoke with online news outlet Al-Monitor, said that “the committee overseeing the evacuation of Waer told us that we would be staying in ready-made homes and that everything would be safe from the moment we arrived.”
“To our surprise, we found nothing. We spent our first night out in the open and some of us slept on the buses,” he added.
Tents were brought in the following day, but essential services such as water and bathrooms were still lacking, according to Mohammad Ismail, a media activist in Jarablus who reported to The New Arab.
“All that was prepared was tents, placed directly on the ground, with blankets and mattresses,” he said.
Ghassan Abo Talal, 42, who was evacuated to Jarablus in one of the first convoys out of Waer, told the Syrian Voice that the situation in Zogara camp was “catastrophic.”
“Because of the bad conditions [in Zogara], I was forced to move with my family to al-Bab,” one of the other destinations for Waer evacuees.
Abo Talal added that he is now “living in a destroyed house in al-Bab despite the danger presented by mines [in the area] left by the Islamic State, as it is still preferable to the camp [in Jarablus].”
Services set to improve under Turkish leadership
In a conversation with the Syrian Voice, Jarablus local council member Mohammad al-Halabi said that the council lacked the necessary resources to care for the arrivals. He added that the town was not made aware of the evacuation plan until mid-March, nor were they informed of the number of evacuees headed their way.
“We put out calls for assistance to several parties, among them military factions, in order to address the needs in the camp. Some of these calls were answered and some services were provided,” he said.
Al-Halabi nonetheless added, “there are indications that services provided [to evacuees from Waer] in Jarablus are improving after the transfer of [responsibility for the situation] to Turkish organizations. Additionally, support from Qatar for the people of Waer is supposed to arrive.”
Ismail, the media activist who spoke to The New Arab, however, blamed Turkish organizations for contributing to the poor situation.
“There are many local and international organizations ready to aid displaced people from Waer,” he said. However, “Turkish authorities have not permitted any non-Turkish organizations to work in Jarablus.”
Nonetheless, Munir al-Ahmad, another Waer evacuee currently in Jarablus, told the Syrian Voice, “We have seen a slight improvement after the case was transferred to Turkish organizations but we are still suffering from a lack of sufficient bathrooms in the camp. We are waiting on the promises of an improved situation.”
At least 20,000 people are expected to depart from Waer under the current agreement, with 12,000 headed to Aleppo, 6,200 to Idlib and 2,400 to northern Homs.
About 8,500 have left thus far, according to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.