That’s what my family, friends and colleagues on the ground who I grew up with kept telling me about my hometown of Aleppo these last few months. A once vibrant city is now reduced to rubble.
Beginning with the implementation of a siege on the eastern part of the city in July, the estimated 250,000 people of eastern Aleppo have endured immeasurable hardships at the hands of the regime and its allies ― starvation, constant bombardment, alleged chemical attacks and lack of access to medical care. And the list goes on and on. Through all of these events, which were well documented by first responders and published in many media outlets worldwide, the international community failed to provide humanitarian assistance and protection for the innocent civilians in the city.
The recent cease-fire and evacuation agreements presented another opportunity for the international community to act with urgency to ensure the protection of civilians during the evacuation process. Once again, the world has failed miserably.
While many may see the evacuations as welcome relief to the horror of the past few days since the fall of the city, the reality is far more complex. The relocation is hardly a solution, in part because the humanitarian process in Aleppo, similar to what has occurred in other towns in Syria, was negotiated between armed sides. This has marginalized the input of the United Nations humanitarian agencies as well as other humanitarian organizations. As a result, the only plan agreed upon to guarantee the safety of the remaining civilians in eastern Aleppo is to evacuate them. This forced displacement represents a striking violation of the international humanitarian law, or IHL, which was enacted to prevent mass punishment of civilians during armed conflicts.
“We are being forced to leave our homeland for the unknown,” a civilian told our team on the ground as he and his family were evacuated to Idlib. “We don’t know what will happen to us, to our family. We have lost faith in the international community to protect us.”
Whole families have been torn apart. Mohamed, whose real name has been changed for security reasons, was one of the evacuated patients. He was admitted to one of our five supported facilities in Idlib, along with his 6-year-old son, after the rest of his family was killed in an airstrike that hit his house. His daughter suffered severe head injuries and was evacuated to Turkey, and he has yet to receive any news about her. Sadly, Mohamed’s story is all too common.
The people of Aleppo are being punished for a crime that they did not commit. Their crime was their choice to live in dignity in their homeland. To add to their suffering, aid agencies have been blocked from providing basic standards of assistance to the evacuees, including food and blankets. Another blatant violation of the IHL.
The citizens of eastern Aleppo have been abandoned during this forced displacement. We have heard firsthand reports from people on the ground and have seen news reports of arrests, killings and harassment at the hands of the regime and the Iran-backed militias. One of the very first convoys to evacuate civilians came under attack, resulting in unnecessary deaths of evacuees.
The lack of organization in this process, too, left thousands of civilians on the streets, unsure of when they would be evacuated. These civilians, numbering close to 40,000, were forced to walk to the boarding point and stand in line for the entire day in extremely cold and harsh conditions. People were burning clothes to keep warm. To add to the chaos, there was neither a documentation process to record those boarding the buses, including the number of unaccompanied minors, nor a system to verify evacuees who make it to safety and those who have been arrested en route.
Medical evacuations were slightly more organized, due to the experience of the medical team on the ground and the limited number of active medical points in eastern Aleppo. Yet, with limited ambulances and capacities, patients took the regular buses with other civilians. As a result, they couldn’t get the treatment they needed while being evacuated, instead having to wait an extended period of time until they reached a medical facility in Idlib or Aleppo’s countryside. The chaotic scene and unpredictability of the situation put additional pressure on medical organizations and hosting communities that have been receiving the displaced civilians due to the fact that there was no prior assessment of medical needs.
Last week, the Syrian American Medical Society shared a video of 47 orphans pleading for their evacuation from eastern Aleppo. Four days later, these orphans were safely evacuated to Idlib after spending 17 hours in a bus without access to food, water and a bathroom in freezing temperatures. Our media manager spoke with the director of the orphanage yesterday, and we were pleased to hear that the children are safe and doing fine.
Evacuations have commenced again after frustrating pauses, with many like these orphans already leaving. But what happens next? Our doctors continue to stand ready to provide much-needed care to the evacuated patients, including many children suffering from acute malnutrition, but they are being hindered by this process. The decision by the United Nations to send monitors to eastern Aleppo is a promising sign. However, it is essential that these monitors be granted full and unimpeded access to monitor the evacuations. Any attempts by the regime or its allies to prevent the monitors from accessing all areas must be swiftly and effectively addressed by the Security Council.
The world has failed the people of Aleppo time and time again, but it’s not too late to act now to help those seeking refuge somewhere else. The international community must do everything in its power to protect these most vulnerable of people. They continue to suffer while the world is standing idly by.
Author: Dr. Ahmad Tarakji