Forced from Home

Reema Hibrawi

March 28, 2017

SyriaSource interviewed Abu al-Majed al-Homsi, a doctor that works in the Walid Field Hospital in al-Waer, about the recent agreement to remove residents from the town of al-Waer.

Abu al-Majed is originally from al-Khalideh neighborhood of Homs city and displaced to al-Waer in 2012. Dr. Abu al-Majed is among the approximately 75 percent of the al-Waer population that is internally displaced. As a result of the recent offensive, the al-Waer local council and negotiation committee accepted subsequent terms of surrender that the regime imposed on the opposition. Earlier in the conflict, people fled to al-Waer as a safe haven to get as far away as possible from the air strikes and attacks by the regime.

Currently, around 12-15,000 people will be forced to leave al-Waer as part of a Russian sponsored agreement with the opposition and the regime agreed upon on Monday March 13. This forcible removal is expected over the course of two months. The first wave of around 1,500 residents left 10 am Damascus time on Saturday March 18 to the northern city of Jarablous in Aleppo province. This group included approximately 400 fighters and their family members. The second wave of displacement expected on Saturday March 25 delayed to Monday March 27 instead. Due to increased medical evacuations needed, more than 1500 people left to Jarablus in Aleppo province.

Photo provided by Fadi Yahya, a resident of al-Waer to show the first forced removal of residents on March 18, 2017.

Priority is given to the medical evacuees: those injured during bombings and air strikes as well as those suffering from chronic diseases. Communication is ongoing with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and other humanitarian organizations on their removal at the border. The exact number of medical evacuees is difficult to measure as there are wounded among civilians and the fighters in addition to mental health patients. The current estimate of wounded is more than 250 people. As standard protocol, the doctors are the last group to leave as the Syrian Ministry of Health takes control of hospitals, medical centers, and the schools.

The Walid Hospital holds 4-6,000 patients including children and long term patients on a monthly basis. A typical day at the hospital starts at 8 am until midnight. The majority of Dr. Abu al-Majed’s work is focused on children as a family doctor. Before this last offensive, some of these injuries were due to gunshot wounds. More recently, emergency cases due to airstrikes are first priority.

Typical hospitals do not treat war injuries as well as chronic illnesses, but there is no other option in al-Waer; it has to serve the entire population.

The hospital has departments for children, women, vaccinations, physical therapy, dermatology, a laboratory, blood born illnesses, and internal medicine; for a besieged hospital, it is well equipped. After the evacuation, the hospital will return to its original status as a clinic under regime control. Around 80 percent of the current doctors studied at this current hospital in al-Waer after completing medical school. The war in 2012 interrupted the studies of several doctors in al-Waer. To fill the need for medical care, people volunteered and learned on the job. Most are general doctors with some specialties.

All the doctors are on the regime’s wanted list because of the key role they play, making it impossible for them to remain in regime territory.

Originally built as a vacation spot, al-Waer is one of the smallest neighborhoods in the area. It was not built to sustain the needs of IDPs displaced from thirteen neighborhoods across Homs city. In addition to its current population, al-Waer absorbed large numbers of IDPs earlier in the war. Its population reached up to 600,000 by 2013. Al-Waer is an important area to the regime because it is strategically located on the northwest road leading from Homs to the coastline, which the regime is intent on securing, and is between rebel strongholds close in Talbiseh and ArRastan part of northern Homs countryside.

Young Homsi Lens Homs - Al-Rae'es Mosque, al-Waer, October 28, 2014 reposted with permission.

In November 2013, the government besieged the neighborhood. Sporadic truce deals, escalated airstrikes, and the siege over the next three years, put unbearable pressure on the residents in al-Waer. In September 2016, another agreement saw the forcible removal of 500 fighters and their families. The Syrian regime has agreed to several truce deals including the demand to release detainees, but once fighters are removed, the regime reneges on the deal and resumes airstrikes.

The continued siege violations add additional strains to the community as stolen medical aid convoys have yet to be investigated by the Syrian or Russian officials. The Syrian regime prevents residents from leaving and allows very little into the neighborhood. This is in defiance of international humanitarian law to allow access to civilians for medical aid in a conflict zone. This chaotic situation forces people to flee into Lebanon and Jordan, and the population has steadily gone down. There is approximately 40-50,000 people left in al-Waer. Of this current population, ten percent are fighters.
The current feeling in al-Waer is fear.

Photo provided by Fadi Yahya, a resident of al-Waer and reposted with permission showing the first forced removal of residents on March 18, 2017.

No safety or security exists for any man from 18-50 years old as this is the current age for conscription into the army; all can be considered draft dodgers by the regime.

The fear of retaliation by Syrian Army’s Fifth Corps, detention, and arrest is a real concern. Most residents with sons are fearful of this agreement. Areas in Damascus countryside (Daraya, Moadamiya, Qudsaya, al-Hameh, al-Tal, and Aleppo) agreed to similar agreements and the fate of their children is uncertain. In Damascus, several reported the regime rounded up men and enlisting them in the army. People continue to be fearful of the forced removal due to the lack of safety especially because of overhead air planes that terrorize people.

The inclusion of Russian representatives was initially met with relief. Yet, it quickly became apparent that Russian forces act as a partner to the Syrian regime and not as an intermediary or an unbiased party. The Russian representatives have made demands of the people while at the same time continuing to bomb them. The majority of air planes sent to drop bombs on al-Waer belonged to Russia.

In the negotiation, Russian representatives said ‘[In terms of bombing] what you have seen so far, is nothing. If you do not sign the agreement, al-Waer will cease to exist if you don’t play your cards right.’

This threatening language was used during the negotiation. Representatives told the local negotiating committee that the air planes used to bomb al-Waer were old Sukhoi Su-35 and Su-24 planes as well as older bombs and shells. Bombing would be much worse with newer planes, unless the agreement is signed.

Young Homsi Lens Al-Waer, March 16, 2017 reposted with permission.

Ultimately the combined tactics of starvation and the threat of bombing, forced the negotiation committee to agree to the deal. Even humanitarian organizations encouraged the negotiation committee to capitulate. With little choice left but to comply, the forced displacement of al-Waer residents continue with little security or assurances of their future. Residents continue to feel conflicted as reports of the first displaced group in Jarablous describe living in tents. Several humanitarian organizations pledged to provide goods and services to the area through the Turkish government from the city of Gaziantep. Compared to the siege, bombing, and starvation, it is sadly a sort of heaven.

Read the article in Arabic here.