JE: We just finished a long meeting of the Humanitarian Taskforce. We had a long list of challenges, a long list of problems, and there were somber reports from our colleagues in the field, from Damascus, from Gaziantep, and our Regional Coordinator, Panos Moumtzis, who had come from Amman.
The Syria war has been synonymous really with hundreds and hundreds of thousands living in besieged areas, and millions in hard-to-reach areas. As we look back one year ago, there were 4.6 million living in hard-to-reach areas, and 625,000 people living in besieged areas. Today 2 million people live in hard-to-reach areas, less than half, and 11,000 people live in besieged locations. So a dramatic decrease, and what has happened are military events, military agreements. This is not a result, I am sad to say, part of any besiegement being lifted, as it should have been long ago, through negotiations, or that the war is ending through negotiations.
It is a good thing that people are not anymore living massively in besieged areas, and that much fewer people are living in hard-to-reach areas, but when this comes at the cost of horrific battles in heavily populated areas, and when it comes because of agreements made by a small group of military people and politicians, too often humanitarian concerns and the protection concerns for the civilian population is lost. The cost for these changes has been too high, a bad agreement is better than horrific war, but a good agreement is what we should strive for.
As we speak, the three remaining areas, and it is well documented in this map that is distributed to you, there are only three places where people are still besieged according to the UN documentations, and that is the two Shi’a towns of Foua and Kefraya, in Idlib, and then the ancient Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, just south of Damascus.
As we speak, there are local agreements having been reached by the military actors that mean that people now have left and are leaving Yarmouk and the nearby place called Yalda. People have left and seems to be leaving for Idlib: these are fighters and families and possibly others, and there are also people evacuated from Foua and Kefraya and there are reports that there are agreements of potentially all or most, possibly all, of the two Shi’a towns being evacuated.
It would have been better, it is better if there were agreements for protection of people where they are, and that we can have an end to the besiegement and end to the fighting in these places, that is the UN urging and I repeat again the UN has not been part or invited into talks about these deals, no humanitarian actor has, as far as I know it, been consulted on how to protect the civilians and make sure that evacuations are voluntary, protected, assisted and to a place of their choosing for the civilians and that they really had an option to stay with protection.
Now the battle for eastern Ghouta, which was the last large besieged area, is over. There where 390,000 people in this area, still 40,000 of these people live in congested displacement camps, outside of their area, there are reports of lack of freedom of movement, especially men between 16 and 65 years, have no freedom to leave these camps. It is also concerning that the UN is having severe restrictions on our access to eastern Ghouta: the battle is over, the civilians need our help, there should be no more restrictions, and this was very much the message now to the Humanitarian Taskforce, and that countries who can influence, including Russia, must make it fully possible to get access to all in eastern Ghouta, and for the people of eastern Ghouta to have freedom of movement wherever they are.
Tens of thousands of people left eastern Ghouta for Idlib. There are reports that now many people may be leaving Yarmouk and Yalda and the areas south of Damascus for Idlib. Others have left, seems to be leaving, Hama and northern Homs areas, also for Idlib. So Idlib is already filled to the brim of internally displaced civilians in often desperate conditions. The humanitarians, heroic humanitarian actors on the ground are completely overwhelmed. Again bad agreements and lack of choice for civilians, where they end up in Idlib, which may not be their choice, are not good agreements. We need to monitor this closely. We are there for the sake of the civilian population; we are not there to serve militaries in their military logic.
Now our fear is that the civilian suffering will see no respite, it saw no respite after the battle of eastern Ghouta was over, the battle just moved elsewhere. It moved to Yarmouk, Afrin in the north, was already a battle zone, there are attacks in Hama, in Homs, in the Islamic State-held areas in the east, and there are air raids in Idlib. So this notion that it is sort of ebbing this war is completely wrong, this war is on and it is still in the midst of civilian population.
One positive development is that we do now for the first time, more than seven years of war and conflict, we seem to have a beginning of a deconflition and protection system for protected sites under humanitarian law. Syria is the worst place in modern history in terms of attacks against the medical profession, hospitals, clinics, but also schools, camps for the displaced people, and humanitarian warehouses and offices.
Until the beginning of this year, there was around 160 places that had voluntarily asked the UN to submit to the Russian Federation and the United States, and in the north also to Turkey, their coordinates, so they say we are here, we are medical or we are humanitarian, this is our location, we guarantee that we are doing only humanitarian work, UN: can you vouch for us and give the coordinates to these air forces and national militaries?
In the course of this year, 500 more sites had been so called deconflicted, coordinates had been voluntarily handed over through the UN, so it is now 661 sites as of today. Four of these sites have had reported attacks, all of these four, and there had only been four out of the 661 places, all of these four has happened in 2018. Two of them in eastern Ghouta, two of them in northern Homs. We have reported these attacks to the Russian Federation and to the United States, United States reported back that they were not active militarily in either of these places. The Russian Federation undertook to investigate what happened. Today at the meeting I received reports from the Russian Federation of investigations of the attack in Arbin in eastern Ghouta, and in Douma, a children’s hospital in Douma, and both are in the course of end March, beginning of April. The Russian military have visited the sites, they have investigated, they have provided photos, they gave a report back to us, now we will study them, we will certainly share them with the humanitarian NGO who gave the report, and then we will have to go back to Russia with our comment on their reports. It is a good thing that we have the reports because if those who are receiving the coordinates are not taking it very seriously the whole deconfliction system does not work.
Finally, on the convoys, of course all of this is changing now that there are hardly any besieged areas left, but again it didn’t end well when we saw that in the course of March and April we reached 7% of the people that we asked to reach in the cross-front-line convoy plan. There was a convoy on 25 March to 75,000 people, 7% of the 1,030,000 people we asked to reach. I hope we will be better now, we were still asked to go cross line again and again we have asked recently to be able to go to Yarmouk, just now, asked to go Yarmouk, we need to go to northern Homs, there are still many many hundreds of thousands of people who live in opposition-controlled areas and who cannot be reached cross border from neighboring countries.
Question: You mentioned four sites and I think you have just gave details of three sites which were affected, and the other question was about what you mentioned that the UN has severe problems to access eastern Ghouta, could you clarify what kind of serious access, what do you mean, does it mean that you have absolutely no access or sometimes, somedays? What does it mean?
JE: Yes, so four sites had been reportedly hit, all by air raids, one in Arbin, eastern Ghouta that was on the date of 20 March, that was a combined hospital and rehabilitation center, then in the beginning of April in Douma, was the Obstetrics hospital, child hospital. The reports we got were on those two locations. There were attacks very recently on 29 and 30April in northern Homs in a place called Zafraneyah, we have not yet received reports back, I urged again our Russian colleagues to come with reports on an air raids just next to two different hospitals in the same place, on 29 and 30 April, we haven’t gotten that yet.
On eastern Ghouta, what is happening is that our colleagues in SARC and some other organizations seem to have, and certainly the Russian military and the Syrian governmental authorities have full access everywhere in eastern Ghouta, but the United Nations and other international humanitarian actors have not full access in eastern Ghouta. There are many places we cannot go ourselves, and there is also, I just heard, that we now need to apply, well in advance, for access to various places of displaced from eastern Ghouta. This is an issue where we rely on Russia to help us fix it really because we are under great encouragement by Russia to really help the people in eastern Ghouta. Now that the control of these people have shifted, so why are we prevented from full access, it is not rational at all.
Question: The British adviser to one of these Syrian medical NGOs in the Times today basically says that the UN providing the coordinates of the medical facilities is causing them to be bombed, it is quite different from your description of deconfliction, and then a follow-up, could you give any interpretation of what seems to have gone wrong because it was not very long ago when you and other senior aid people were saying that the Russians where quite helpful with access, seems to have gone wrong, especially in Ghouta.
JE: Well my impression is that the Russian diplomats and even the Russian military in many places try to help, encourages help. We set out a tripartite body, Russian Federation, Syrian government and the UN, sometime back. In that body we asked for again, reiterated, according to the convoy plan we were supposed to go to A, B, and C, and Russia said yes, and we strongly encourage that and we really support that, and then the government says, well you cannot go now, it is not safe for you, it is not secure for you, we cannot secure, etc. So the success rate of the Russian Federation in helping us has not been that high, actually of late, so indeed their helpfulness is not as effective as it should be.
Well, I am surprised really by those who say that they really want to help protect medical facilities, that they are questioning the whole value of trying to get a deconfliction up in the Syria war like we have it Yemen, we have it in Afghanistan, we have it in Mali, and in many other conflicts. If nobody believes in it then the alternative is actually that we have no deconfliction and just hundreds of attacks, as we have had up till now.
There are four attacks out of 660 sites, so the indication seems that if you deconflicted the likelihood of being hit is much lower, but the four hits are very concerning of course. We now need to study these reports and as I said also to the diplomats in the Humanitarian Taskforce and to the countries in Brussels that assembled, if there is no accountability of course the system doesn’t work.
I am refusing to give up, you basically give up if you say they will attack us no matter what, that is giving up, I am not giving up, trying to change what is there.
Question: To ask a question that I have asked many times before, it is about the outlook for Idlib, I mean you talked about this, but I want to ask with all these people pulled in Idlib, having been evacuated from other places and President Assad obviously sees this as a zone full of people who are against him, what is the plan? Are you talking to the Syrians and the Russians and the Iranians about this? What do we expect? Is this going to be the worst bloody chapter of the war, and one other question, if I may, can you tell us what do you think about the White Helmets? because in the recent to and fro about the chemical weapons accusations, I can’t sight it now but you know I have seen a lot of accusations that they are terrorists and that they are part of the plot and they fabricated evidence, it would be good to know whether the UN view of the White Helmets, whether they are a force of good or they are part of the problem? Just to be clear.
JE: Idlib is certainly my, and I would say, our worry number one, for the very reason that it is so full of vulnerable civilians. One way of looking at it, it is that it is six times eastern Ghouta, and there were never 50% internally displaced in eastern Ghouta, so there are six times more civilians’ in Idlib and they are even more vulnerable, they are living out in the open they are living in congested displacement camps, crammed in collective centers. They arrive at 2:00 a.m., you know, sort of every night now just to find that they can hardly get any bed offered by the completely overwhelmed humanitarian actors.
So we cannot have a war in Idlib, I keep saying that now to Russia, to Iran, to Turkey to the United States, to anyone who has an influence, we cannot have the kind of war in Idlib that we have seen horrifically unfolding from Aleppo, via Raqqa, to Deir ez-Zor, and eastern Ghouta of late, cannot have it. So what should happen? Well, local, regional, national negotiations to protect those civilians there. The recent air raids on sites in Idlib are not a good omen, they are a bad omen. But I am an unarmed humanitarian worker, I can only call on men with guns and power to shield the civilians in Idlib.
On the White Helmets, I am not an expert on them, what I know of the White Helmets is that these are very very courageous local civil defense people who have suffered tremendously as they have rushed into the front-lines to rescue people basically; they are only on one side of the conflict. The UN, the Red Crescent, the ICRC, my own organization NRC are on both sides, but no I am impressed by the courageous nature and the sacrifice of the local White Helmet civil defense people. I do not know them beyond that.
Question: There is now a new ongoing agreement for three locations, southern-rural Damascus for evacuation; are you aware of this agreement, and the people refusing the evacuation (as I heard reports this morning), what will be their situation, do you have any concern about the people refusing this evacuation?
JE: I am very much aware of this, this was brought up strongly with the countries today. This includes Yarmouk, where there are still some descendants of the Palestinians refugees so people who fled from Israel, Palestine in 48 end up three generations later by being in the most horrific battle zone of the most horrific war of this generation. The agreement again is a complex local agreement between military actors, and it is very much linked to the Foua-Kefraya agreement as well, at least the part which is of Yarmouk. So fighters who besieged Foua-Kefraya have comrades as they call them in Yarmouk and there is a bind between them.
Our appeal was today again, that the people of Yarmouk and neighboring Yalda and Babila and elsewhere have to have an option of staying, their eventual evacuation has to be voluntary, and it should be to a place of their choosing. I cannot guarantee that any of these things is actually happening because we are not part of the agreement. The Russians told us that they are working for the possibility of those who want to stay in Southern Damascus to stay and they say that they can and will help with military police and their own presence to shield civilians, as they say they are shielding anyone who stayed behind in Eastern Ghouta from reprisals. We need to have a watchful eye on this, again I wish that these military men with and without beard would be willing to listen to us and consult with us on the agreement, and number two on where people are supposed to go because they end up with humanitarian actors in the end, and humanitarian actors are often not prepared for where people suddenly end up.
Question: In this agreement, the military police or the Russian army police will stay in these areas for six months and afterward will be allowed for the regime to enter to these three locations as I read this morning. Do you think after the six months or through the six months even, the UN do you have any discussions with the Russians to be to have access to these three locations through the six months’ presence of the Russians?
JE: Listen we are asking for access, now, to Yarmouk, we are asking for a convoy to Yarmouk— we’re prevented from going there, it was actually the place that we were even not approved on our list; we often get a “yes” on the list to go to places and then we are prevented in reality, we were not even given the option of going, I think that is also in part because Islamic State fighters are in there—we want to go there, we will work to there. On the Russian role, ask them, I am sure they would be willing to explain what their plans and their responsibilities.
Question: Just about the humanitarian situation in Afrin and Raqqa if you have some information about that.
JE: Not much more than I have said before, in Afrin we are really concerned that 137,000 people from the Afrin district remain displaced in Tal Refaat, Nubul, Zahraa and Fafin areas that are Syrian Government controlled. And an estimated 50,000 others reportedly remain in Afrin, with a further 100,000 people in the rural areas of the district. These people who are within the Afrin area controlled by Turkish forces are now served cross-border. Certainly, the UN would like to see a possibility to serve them cross-line also from within Syria. There’s been a number of issues on the freedom of movement for people from Afrin and within Afrin; both when they have left the area and government controlled areas, and when they are within there has been concerns of their freedom of movement. On Raqqa it is still a tremendous challenge in terms of the unexploded grenades, bombs, ordinance that is all over Raqqa still and it is going slow to clear the city, so the risk of going there and returning there is still enormous.
Question: Yesterday the President of ICRC told us that he thinks that the conflict is in a threshold moment and that all the scenarios are changing, switching and its different, so do you think in this scenario peace talks are like farther than ever? And Do you fear of a balkanization of Syria or something like that, balkanization?
JE: My humanitarian answer is basically that when everything is in flux, when everything looks bleak, when the military are the ones following their logic, then that is the time where we need to demand a real say for humanitarians that follow a humanitarian principled protection logic. So no, this is the time where we need to demand that we have to learn from what happened in all of these other places, from Aleppo to Raqqa, to eastern Ghouta, and not see war to come to neither Idlib nor Daraa in the South, but also remember there are 240,000 people under armed opposition groups control in Northern rural Homs; there are fighting and air raids there basically every day and nobody talks about that. So it’s incredible how Syria became the place where we got used to atrocities and bombing and maiming of civilians and it’s not just those who have an air force, it’s also armed opposition groups. In Idlib, infighting among armed opposition groups happened recently at the entrance of a hospital which made patients and everybody flee for their life. These men seem to have a free reign and we should avoid it and we are not giving up, and our good friends in ICRC are not giving up. But it’s not over, and that’s what I fear people think it’s sort of over. We’ve only still got 23 per cent of a humanitarian programs funded and we’re now in May, so pledges in Brussels are not committed yet to programs, there is no cash really available to humanitarian actors as desperate, exhausted people arrive now every day in Idlib. There is no money for the operations, so please don’t leave us before this marathon of suffering is over.
Thank you very much.