JE: Thanks really for waiting. We just finished a difficult humanitarian taskforce meeting. Why is it difficult, because the member states that are supposed to help us get access to civilians in the crossfire are poles apart in how they regard what is happening in Syria. We are not having a united humanitarian diplomacy on the parties and we see that in a diminishing access on the ground.
The December plan for access cross front line was approved finally by the government of Syria and we had 800,000 of the 930,000 people we asked to get access to, were granted permission for.
For the first time, east Aleppo is on the list of places that were granted approval to, of course it was not approved in the November plan when we had a greater potential of crossing a stable frontline, today that is not the case in east Aleppo.
We are as concerned for the wellbeing of the civilians in al-Waer and in the Four Towns: Madaya, Zabadani, Foah and Kefraya, now perhaps, even as in parts of Aleppo. Therefore the shadow of the dramatic situation in Aleppo but the situation there is terrible as well. There is more fighting, we visited al-Waer with a team just yesterday, and they reported of very bad conditions; and the shelling on the Four Towns by Hezbollah on Madaya and Zabadani, and the armed opposition groups on Foah and Kefraya has become intense and it is related to Idleb.
We tried to get access to east Aleppo every single day since it was besieged on the 7th of July. We had three major plans and initiatives, all of them have failed, and most recently our four-point plan for assistance in and evacuations out.
I have never been in my many many years of humanitarian negotiations in as difficult negotiations and as frustrating talks that produced nothing in spite of thousands of contacts with all of the parties and it is with bitterness and frustration that we have to report that we have not been able even to evacuate the wounded.
Why is that? Well because we need the government of Syria, military and political. We need the Russian Federation, we need the various constellation of the armed opposition groups, we need the opposition health directorate and others, to all agree on: where, how, under what conditions, what guarantees, for what protection standards and logistics, they all need to agree on all of these things. If only one disagrees, the whole thing falls.
We thought we would be able to do evacuations at the end of this week, I personally felt confident that this would be happening actually as we speak. The most recent of these talks really broke down when a field hospital of the Russian military in west Aleppo was hit on the 6th of December, then that broke down, we are not giving up, we even got reports that we immediately conveyed today during the meeting of several hundred children, sick and wounded, that need to get out and we have now medical heroic doctors in east Aleppo who will do everything to get them out.
Now the one possibility would be to get these humanitarian corridors become corridors, but as we said to Russia and to all of the armed actors there, a humanitarian corridor is only a humanitarian corridor if there is ceasefire in and around the corridor, there has to be a pause, at the moment, those who tried to go through the crossing points, tried to escape, are caught in cross-fire, they are caught in shelling, and they risk being hit by snipers, is very hard to see and know from where the fire comes. It is a very intense battle scene.
Frontlines have changed, every single day of late, which means that the civilian population has dramatically shifted in its location, some have come out, very many we think are now cramped together, in the remaining area, which may be only 25% of what it was in November.
Many have wanted to go to Idlib, we were ready to evacuate also to Idlib, which is opposition held, but the local council in Idlib has informed us that they cannot receive anymore, it is so full of internally displaced in Idlib and the fighting and the attacks are also so bad there.
We continue having contacts with armed opposition groups, they’ve come with proposals for pause and proposals for evacuations, those have been transmitted to the Syrian government and to the Russian Federation. We need all sides to agree, if we are to help the population.
Maybe final point, in addition to us renewing our call for a pause, we need a pause for the sake of the civilian population of east Aleppo, the remaining ones, so that they can come out without being attacked. Secondly, we need to have a better protection system for those who come out. There are reports that people, their ID cards taken, that some are arrested, of mal-treatment. This is not confirmed, but how can we confirm one or the other when we do not have full access in this area? The UN staff do not have full access in government controlled areas, of west Aleppo, including the areas that have shifted control, some say Aleppo is falling, some say Aleppo is liberated. We see that front lines are shifting and people are now accessible but then we need access. These are the things we have asked for from the various sides.
Finally, winter is now in Aleppo, it is freezing cold at night. We do have food for hundreds of thousands of people through this winter, we can provide water and emergency relief and we are, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and other partners. We are very nervous of our ability to provide winter shelter with all of these hundreds of thousands of people who are in a totally war-ravaged area.
Q:You mentioned this tragedy of the Russian hospital which was shelled, and two nurses were killed and they really were helping civilians. In Russia people and authorities notices that there is very little reaction or very weak reaction on the fact that this crime was committed, when the same things happened before there was a lot of noise, now it looks like the United Nations didn't notice, Red Cross noticed but not very very urgently, what do you think is the reason for this reaction? And how it influenced your plans, I mean the fact that this hospital was shelled?
JE: We condemn the attack at that military field hospital, we completely condemn it, it seems to be a targeting of a field hospitals. The doctors, female doctors, there was also a very famous Professor, Doctor well-known in Russia, the doctors were there to help civilian population escaping, it is a tragedy. Condolences were expressed in the meeting today from me, and from the UN to the Russian side. Of course we also reminded each other that 770 health workers have been killed, according to the listings of this horrific war, and including these doctors, so no we condemn that, as much as we condemned all of the other terror attacks on hospitals and the medical sector in this horrific war.
Q. I have a couple of questions: the first one, you said that the Syrian government has granted the December plan, and that it includes eastern Aleppo too, but they do not let you go in, so how does it work in practical terms, and then if you can elaborate on the 700 children that are wounded or sick.
JE: We do have absolutely desperate appeals from inside Aleppo coming to us, it comes to us as individuals now, as UN officials, as humanitarians, it comes from doctors, from health workers, from volunteers, from civil society groups and they also talk about the very desperate situation and the need for evacuation. Earlier there have been often mixed signals on how and in what way and on what conditions evacuations were allowed from armed opposition groups and part of the civilian opposition authorities, now they are not putting conditions, they have asked for a pause and they have asked us to organize the evacuations. Russia said that they will definitely be discussing with us how to organize evacuations still but they will not anymore be promising any pause. So it will be very difficult and we will be working, including on those between 100 and 500 children that have been identified as in need for evacuation for medical reasons.
Yes, it is paradoxical that the approval to provide assistance to east Aleppo comes now and not in October and November. We can go, we need, I would say, 48 hours, and then we will be able to provide food for 150,000 people. It is there in west Aleppo, it is like crossing from east to west Geneva, but then we need a pause, it will be a major operation. I know see us in the next hours to really rather concentrate on this (inaudible) for evacuation, and we cannot fail the people on that.
Q. You said that talks so far had produced nothing, what about these US-Russian talks that are going on at the moment, do you have any insight or any optimism? If they do not produce a deal, what happens? And also have the Syrians given you any numbers or any indication of how many people they think have come out of east Aleppo, including fighters who may have been arrested?
JE: Figures are now very very difficult to produce. One of the figures we’ve heard, we’ve gotten from local authorities and local humanitarian partners is like some 30,000 people have been registered leaving besieged east Aleppo to government controlled areas [ and Kurdish areas]. But then again we also hear of whole parts of town that shifted from opposition to government control where there seems to be a lot people. Yesterday heroically people from the Red Cross, Red Crescent were able to evacuate more than a 100 disabled, handicapped people, who were left behind in an area in the old city where control shifted. Those are now, thank God, in safety in hospitals there in the west. So lots of things are happening as we speak, it is very fluid, it shouldn't be like this, we should have had the organized evacuations that we were negotiating, and I am very sad we couldn't do it. There is a lot of assistance going on, however, for all those whom we can access, either directly as UN, or through humanitarian partners.
The US-Russia, let’s hope they will produce something, because we ‘ve only had bad news for a long time, that could be a glimmer of hope if the Co-Chairs again become Co-Chairs of these efforts and the whole point of having Co-Chairs is that they are pulling together, and they haven’t been for quite some time, so let us hope that this is the beginning of something better.