They were 83 emaciated people, mostly older men, who staggered off buses coming from the centre of Homs on Friday, the first stage of a three-day ceasefire to bring relief to people who have been under siege in the middle of Syria’s third-largest city for 600 days. Some 3,000 people have been trapped in Old Homs, forced to live off olives and grass and given religious permission to eat cats and dogs for meat.
It may not seem a big number in a war that has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced six million people to flee their homes but, as the first humanitarian rescue in this conflict, 83 is huge.
“Huge is an understatement,” said Simon Hacker, the logistician responsible for distributing food across Syria for the World Food Program. The WFP has dozens of trucks lined up outside Homs, ready to take in Saturday a month’s worth of food for the people still in the rebel-held centre of the city.
“The UN has been tirelessly trying to reach Old Homs for over a year now,” Mr. Hacker, a Canadian, said. “So it’s great news for the hundreds of civilians caught in the crossfire.
“However, what makes this especially important is the chance that this ceasefire can be parlayed into something much bigger: greater humanitarian access, other ceasefires brokered in other parts of the country, or maybe even peace.”
Credit for the timing of this humanitarian action could go to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government welcomed what it called a “landmark agreement.” Russia has supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout the past three years and any concessions the regime has made, such as turning over its chemical weapons to the United Nations for disposal, have come when Russia twisted Mr. al-Assad’s arm.
An initial round of peace talks between the opposition and the regime adjourned in Geneva a week ago without agreement on any issue, including the notion of a humanitarian ceasefire in Homs. The talks are to resume Monday, and Syria said Friday its representatives would be there.
Homs was one of the first parts of the country to erupt into violence following the initially peaceful protests in the spring of 2011, protests that were met with deadly force by the regime. Since mid-2011, street after street in Homs has been fought over and destroyed as the government pressed relentlessly to take back the city from opposition forces.
By June of 2012, the remaining rebels were holed up in the old city, surrounded by the army that had cut off all supply routes. It became a “surrender or starve” strategy, not unlike the medieval sieges that gripped the area 1,000 years ago.
It’s expected that by Sunday at least 200 people will take the opportunity to leave, an opportunity available only to women, children under 15 and men over 55.
Rebels had rejected previous offers of relief, believing regime forces would finish them off as soon as residents were moved to safety.
Not far from the old city, in the Hamadiya and Bustan al-Diwan districts, hundreds of Christians also are agitating to get out, but no safe passage has yet been established.
Follow Simon Hacker’s journal from Syria at tgam.ca/Cdn-in-Syria