JE: Thank you very much. We have tried to assist east Aleppo for several months now, we have had five major initiatives to bring relief to the besieged part of east Aleppo and to evacuate wounded and civilians from east Aleppo. They have all failed. We do hope that today we see the start of a last and successful attempt of evacuations of that troubled city.
We were invited this morning to monitor, assist the evacuation that will take place from the remaining enclave that is controlled by armed opposition groups. It is a three-pronged evacuation, it is medical evacuation of wounded and sick, it is an evacuation of vulnerable civilians and it is an evacuation of fighters.
This is not an agreement mediated by the United Nations, it is an agreement that has been made in direct talks between the parties to this war, we were not part of it and we were only invited this morning to monitor. We do such monitoring with the good colleagues in ICRC, who are now present there with our representatives from the World Health Organization. We stand ready with a number of teams that are experts on protection, on humanitarian law and humanitarian principles. We stand ready to accompany those who are being evacuated, not only from east Aleppo but all the way to Idlib, that is controlled by armed opposition groups, that will be the destination of most of the people evacuated. We stand also ready to care for them all the way to Turkey and into Turkey if they chose that to be their final destination.
Today, Russia detailed how the evacuation would take place in the [humanitarian] taskforce and they confirmed that Russians will be monitoring that this is a swift, unbureaucratic, non-intrusive evacuation and that nothing, no harm will meet those who are evacuated.
We feel all strongly that the history of Aleppo through this war will be a black chapter in the history of international relations. It took 4000 years to build Aleppo, hundreds of generations, yet one generation managed to tear it down in four years. Aleppo, for three thousand years, gave to the world civilization and world civilization was not there to assist the people of Aleppo when they needed us the most.
We do however, now try to do as much as we can to assist all those who have come out, 50,000 have been displaced from east Aleppo, this is an estimate that we now have. Most of these have been assisted by UN relief, we are not able to provide humanitarian protection by presence to all of these people, simply because we are not allowed to move freely in the area. We can access the camps where the internally displaced now assemble, where conditions are very difficult, now we have to offer one room for every two families, so there will be ten to twelve people in each room.
I would say that the most painful experience of all of these weeks and months of work is that we haven’t been able to be present when the Syrian civilians have needed us the most. There are 700,000 people in 15 besieged areas beyond east Aleppo and they are a symbol of this lack of presence, lack of protection.
All of the parties on the ground are guilty of blocking access for international humanitarian workers. I cannot recall a war where this has been such an acute problem in the last generation.
We hope this will change, we pray it will change, we are ready to assist. We heard harrowing reports now from al-Waer, in Homs, of how bad it is. We heard how bad it is in Foua, Kefraya, the Shia towns besieged by armed opposition groups. Civilians there want to evacuate, they cannot and it is equally bad in Madaya as you know, where there is no health care and a steady loss of civilian lives.
This is a pledge to be there for each and every one who needs us, we are not giving up but we need help really, we need more help from the members of the Humanitarian Taskforce, they have not been able to give us the access that we needed and therefore we have not been witnesses to atrocities that we know have been committed by all sides in this horrific war, including in east Aleppo.
Q. I would like to understand more how you are going to assist them? Will you meet the civilians at the border when they leave east Aleppo? And are you going to accompany them until Idlib or Turkey, are you going to escort them? And then as well, the December plan was approved, you told us last week, do have green lights to come in to assist the remaining people, if there are any? Thank you.
JE: It is true that, you know, tragically, the one month where we got the green light from the government to assist east Aleppo was December, when the besieged area is ceasing to exist and we have not so far received permission to access, even the part of east Aleppo that has now shifted hands, there has only been one mission from the World Health Organization there, we are not able to go there, as of now, we hope that will change very soon.
There is not a single [cross-line] convoy that has been completed this month of December and this is the fifth horrific war winter and our plea was to preposition as much as we could in all of these areas, in October and November and now before the end of the year and we were prevented from doing so, not only by the fighting, and by the security forces on the ground but also by a bureaucracy which is incredible and we cannot move until we have all those green lights from the government, from the local governors as well as from the parties.
We had to improvise this morning when we were invited to join the evacuation, immediately there were a lot of humanitarian workers who were willing and able to go from our hub in western Aleppo, it is the World Health Organization that has now gotten through, and into the place where they are now next to the ambulances that we hope will leave with the first wounded. And yes we hope to accompany them to the end destinations. We will do as much as we can to be close to and with and for those who are evacuated.
There are two groups of orphans, or unaccompanied minors and minors separated from their parents, we got a video from them, that the guardian [of the orphanage] sent us last night, and these are 47 small children, beautiful children, who cry for not being able to come out in this evacuation, we hope to be able to evacuate them, UNICEF can receive them and care for them. But we need the parties on the ground to help us.
Q: Can you confirm that we speak about 200 wounded for the first part of the evacuation and what could be the number of people that might be evacuated in the next sequences?
JE: No I cannot confirm any figure but it will be a large evacuation all in all if you have the wounded, vulnerable groups like these unaccompanied children and orphans and the fighters, and their families, so we always want to have the family go with those who evacuate so it could be all in all, it is surely well over a thousand, it could be in the thousands.
Q: You said most of the evacuees will move to Idlib, was that a good idea, isn’t that just postponing their fate?
JE: Well, Idlib, they want to go and it is a free choice to choose where to go, they want to go to an opposition-controlled area, we have two points established in Idlib, which has been a war zone and where Russians and others assure us that there will be a pause in the fighting, when we evacuate, or rather when we assist the evacuation from these two points we will take people onwards. We have now contingencies to help 100,000 people that we could receive through those two hubs in Idlib and many of them, some would go on to Turkey, some to more quieter corners of Idlib, we need to work on how to get them out of harm’s way. But I am afraid from what may come when this operation is over, both to the people of Idlib and all of the other areas that are still contested and where there are really hundreds of thousands displaced already in the middle of a war zone.
Q: I wanted to clarify what you said earlier about 50,000, you said thousands may be coming out but there are 50,000 from east Aleppo, is it up to them whether they come out? Is there any screening, between rebels, former al-Nusra, it is unclear. Thank you.
JE: Well, the number 50,000 was mentioned by our Humanitarian Coordinator in the meeting today and these are people who were in the formerly besieged eastern Aleppo area and who are now accessible to us in government-controlled areas, in the Kurdish controlled areas, or even in part of eastern Aleppo where we can send assistance through partners. These are the 50,000 [people].
Numbers are very difficult at the moment, how many are left in that armed opposition enclave now, is it 30,000 is it less? It is a very crowded small area. And was our original estimate of more than a quarter million people wrong for this region, for the besieged area [of east Aleppo]? We do not know, we are working on that, but 50,000 people can now be assisted, who were in east Aleppo, and they are registered.
Well, the 50,000 basically fled from the war zone, and the shifting front lines, there are reports of people detained, many people having their IDs taken from them, there are people arrested but there are also very many people who are registered in the ordinary fashion who are in these two IDP (internal displacement persons) hubs where we received them and where they get ordinary assistance. We have a lot of assistance there, the UN is providing the majority of the relief supplies to the population of west Aleppo and of the city of Aleppo at the moment.
Q: I just wanted to make sure, you said it is SARC that is leading the evacuations, is this correct, and I just want you to tell me do you know if these evacuations have begun yet, or not, and you mentioned before that the UN is not part of it, who is preventing the UN from taking part in this evacuation?
JE: The UN was not party to the negotiations and that is very important. This is a deal made by the parties themselves, those who fight, have been fighting inside and those who have been attacking. This deal, then, was presented to us, and we, as we always do, volunteer to monitor and assist civilian and other evacuations, according to our protection standards, and we are doing that as we speak, UN vehicles are there at the moment, so are, I understand, ICRC and SARC ambulances. And we will accompany these, but this is not our agreement, it is an agreement that we assist, I wish we had been taken into the talks earlier so that we could have prepared better.
Well, we could not go through now with all of the vehicles we wanted because there were Government of Syria checkpoints, where only some of the vehicles could go through, but we are now getting around the clock help from the Russian military and we think we will be able to monitor and assist those evacuations that should follow. At the moment, as I understand, just the medical, one trying to move and one has tried for some time, there are many parties on the ground as you know, and our experience is that it takes all ten parties and actors to agree for something to happen and it takes only one to disagree for the whole thing to be slowed down.
Q: Would you be so kind to say what will be organized in Idlib? Will there be a screening procedure or what? What will be the next step? Now these vehicles are moving as far as I understand to Idlib, and after, what will be there?
JE: In Idlib they will be registered, as we always do, their needs will be recorded and from there they will be directed to the assistance that we can provide and the camps and provisions that we can offer. We are also in contact with Turkey for major new camps that could be set up, hundreds of thousands of people could come to Idlib, that is our planning.