United Nations aid convoys began to evacuate residents of the besieged Syrian city of Homs on February 9 and deliver food and medical aid as the humanitarian situation worsened for civilians trapped there. Reports of hunger, disease and widespread death are emerging from the western city that has been the focal point of the brutal three-year civil war.
U.N. convoys reported being fired upon with shells and mortar as they entered the Old City, which both government and opposition forces blame on each other. This is the first time aid has reached the city since December 2012, said Dima Moussa, a spokesperson for the Homs Quarters Union.
“If unobstructed aid hasn’t come for the last year and half, the next time it could might be in six months to a year or maybe never at all,” Michael Weiss, an analyst and journalist for Foreign Affairs, told Vice News. “One thing though is for sure - as long as there is any type of rebel presence in the city [of Homs], the regime will not allow any form of aid in or out.”
Civilians being attacked as they approach a U.N. aid convoy
Although both rebel fighters and pro-government forces agreed to a U.N.-brokered ceasefire last Thursday to allow food aid and medical supplies in and to evacuate civilians, this pause was quickly broken after its second day as U.N. aid trucks came under deliberate attack.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) reported that millions of Syrians are trapped in besieged areas across the country and the three-day pause in fighting was essential to the evacuation of the ill and delivery of aid supplies to the 2,500 civilians that have been trapped for the past year and eight months.
Samantha Powers, the United States Ambassador to the U.N., voiced her frustration with the humanitarian aid blockage in a Tweet on Wednesday:
More than 1,300 civilians have been evacuated from the besieged city since last Friday, but many residents remain and continue to face an uncertain future.
“Simply put, the U.N. has no authority on the ground in Syria since everything it does it has to refer back to the Regime,” said Weiss. “When the only state actor that exists with guns and authority is the regime, at a certain point you have to work with them and through them.”
Civilians being evacuated in Homs last week by UNHCR aid workers
Homs was a flashpoint for fighting early on in the war, when rebel groups took control of the city in early 2012 and has been under siege from government forces ever since. Reports of daily shelling, sniper fighting and deliberate starvation used by the government forces as a tool of war have emerged from the city over the past year and a half.
Although Homs has become a symbol for the scale of civilian suffering endemic in the Syrian civil war, the growing humanitarian crisis it is by no means limited to this one city. Widespread starvation and civilian suffering has been reported throughout Syria, including Damascus and inside the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk which has suffered from a similar siege from the Syrian Army after it came under rebel control.
These reports come as representatives from the opposition and government meet in Geneva to discuss a political solution to end fighting. Yet progress remains frustratingly slow.