Evacuations from besieged Aleppo are in progress right now and thousands of wounded people, elderly civilians and children have already made it out with the help of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
Many of us have been waiting for this moment and have campaigned for safe passage for civilians and humanitarians who were being bombed in their crowded neighbourhoods.
It’s a bittersweet moment. At the arrival point in the Aleppo countryside many were in tears. Some of relief to have survived the siege, others because they had to leave their homes and the graves of their family members behind.
As one Syrian friend described it, this was a war crime of forced displacement that we were compelled to campaign for and support because the alternative was so much worse – bombing, starvation or execution.
People are still waiting for safe passage now. The evacuation has been fraught with pauses, violence and casualties. At one point pro-regime militias fired on people in ambulances waiting to evacuate and a sniper hit White Helmet volunteer Bebars Meshaal in the stomach. He was operated on and we continue to wait for news of his condition. At another point, the evacuation was halted when extremists set fire to buses evacuating wounded civilians from the rebel-besieged towns of Fouah and Kefraya.
People waited on the buses from Aleppo for 11 hours until negotiations allowed them to move again. They were without food and no water to make baby formula for the infants on board.
But for the first time in many weeks people are able to breathe a sigh of relief as their family members and friends’ message to let them know they have made it outside of besieged Aleppo.
So what’s next? We must keep our attention with those who have escaped. Many will stay in the countryside of Aleppo while others will join thousands of displaced people in the province of Idlib.
Some will have to live in tents in freezing cold temperatures and snowfall. Headlines proclaimed yesterday that Bana Al Abed, the 7-year-old girl referred to as “our era’s Anne Frank”, who tweeted from the city and touched people around the world, is now “safe”. Sadly, this is wishful thinking. Besieged Aleppo isn’t the only place in Syria where children are being bombed.
In nearby Idlib only weeks ago, where many of Aleppo’s children will be headed, an airstrike on a school in the town of Haas killed more than 20 students and teachers, some of them around Bana’s age. Syrian children will only be safe when the war ends and the airstrikes and sieges stop.
Today people are saying the city of Douma, near Damascus, could be the next Aleppo. After that, it will be Idlib. But for now we are glad that the shelling of besieged Aleppo has stopped and the violence wasn’t able to proceed under the cover of silence. The humanitarians we were worried about have been spared summary execution and civilians are somewhere with food and access to medical care – safer but still not safe.
We hope that doctors and White Helmets who made it out safely will have a chance to get some sleep and spend time with their families. Many will go back to work soon.
What we were reminded of over and over again last week was that world governments cannot be trusted to put civilians first. It will come down to people like us around the world, using our collective power, to pressure them to put interests aside and focus on the families and humanitarians who need protection.
Together thousands of us got on the phone and took to the streets. We called up Russian embassies and our foreign ministries, we showed up to government houses. It was what our friends in Syria, activists, doctors, teachers and White Helmets in besieged Aleppo, asked us to do – show our solidarity and call for safe passage. Now our solidarity will have to continue.