North Homs residents rethink decision to evacuate after convoy redirected to rebel-held Idlib

AMMAN: Hundreds of families in the encircled north Homs countryside withdrew their decision to be evacuated under a surrender agreement with the government this week, following news of redirected convoys and harsh living conditions in displacement camps.

In the north Homs town of Talbiseh alone, 200 families have requested to have their names removed from the evacuation lists since the first convoy left the encircled pocket on Monday, said Mohammed al-Khateeb, the head of the town’s local council. The council is responsible for recording the names of people wishing to evacuate.

Would-be evacuees balked after hearing about difficulties faced by thousands of residents who left north Homs earlier this week, said al-Khateeb.

Talbiseh resident Samer al-Mahmoud, 33, removed his name and the names of his wife and three children from the lists this week. He had hoped to travel to the north Aleppo city of al-Bab, which is currently held by Turkish-backed rebels, but grew concerned after an earlier convoy was prevented from entering and travelled to Idlib province instead.  

Evacuees from north Homs arrive in Idlib on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Qalat Al-Madeq News.

“This is not what people agreed to when they decided to leave,” said al-Mahmoud. Whereas northern Aleppo was seen as a relatively safe option, Idlib province is regularly hit by Russian and government airstrikes.

More than 8,000 evacuees from south Damascus and the northern Homs countryside were expected to enter territories held by Turkish-backed rebels this week but buses were stopped at the crossing point outside of the Aleppo city of al-Bab and held for hours, reportedly due to “logistical matters,” Syria Direct reported on Wednesday.

While the first convoy carrying 3,391 people was allowed to enter al-Bab on Tuesday, a second convoy carrying 2,803 people eventually turned around and travelled instead to rebel-held Idlib province.

The north Homs evacuees entered Idlib this morning and have since been taken to shelters in the area, Abida Dandush, a spokesperson for Syria Relief and Development, the humanitarian organization coordinating the reception of the displaced, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

On Thursday, the negotiations committee in north Homs announced that all evacuations would be put on hold until the evacuees of the two initial convoys reached safety, and ordered the local councils to re-register those wishing to leave in upcoming departures, according to a statement posted on the Homs Media Center’s Facebook page.

At least 35,000 people have been displaced to rebel-held areas of Aleppo province in recent months, and organizations there are struggling to accommodate the basic needs of the displaced, Syria Direct reported on Wednesday.

A lack of access to clean water, sanitation and basic healthcare services has left the displaced vulnerable to diseases such as meningitis and pneumonia, according to a press release by Doctors Without Borders published on Monday.

The combination of uncertainty about the destination of future convoys and worries about humanitarian conditions in the camps led residents to reconsider the risks of staying in north Homs, including possible conscription.

“I didn’t want to cause my family pain through this evacuation,” said Hamam Khaled, a resident of the north Homs town of al-Hamrat who is wanted for compulsory military service. “I told them I was ready to go to the army.”

Al-Mahmoud says he weighed a similar risk. “I am staying, which might cost me my life,” said the Talbiseh resident. “But it would be easier than the humiliation [of leaving].”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.