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Dec 19, 2016

The Guardian | World Middle East | Aleppo: Aleppo Refugees Reach Safety After Being Held at Government Checkpoint

Kareem Shaheen
Hundreds of people from east Aleppo who spent hours in limbo crammed on to buses at a Syrian government checkpoint have reached safety, becoming the latest group to be evacuated from the embattled city.

Two days after the deal to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians in the shrinking and besieged rebel enclave appeared on the verge of unravelling, it seems to be back on track. But many remain languishing in the winter cold and hundreds are still being held at the Syrian government checkpoint.
A source with knowledge of the evacuation deal said roughly 1,000 civilians in 25 buses had been evacuated overnight into the western Aleppo countryside, which is controlled by the opposition. Another 20 are still stuck at the government crossing in the district of Ramouseh, awaiting the parallel evacuation of residents in two pro-government villages besieged by rebels.
Among those who were rescued was Bana al-Abed, a seven-year-old girl whose tweets about life in east Aleppo under bombardment captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people on social media, including prominent figures such as author JK Rowling.
Humanitarian workers in the area published images showing a smiling Bana on their shoulders, wearing a winter jacket and woollen head cover. Her tweets had drawn attention to the suffering of east Aleppo’s residents, and there were fears that she might be killed or fall into the hands of government forces.
Nearly 50 children who had been trapped in an orphanage were also evacuated on Monday, the United Nations children’s agency said. Some were in a critical condition from injuries and dehydration, Unicef’s regional director told Reuters.
The UN security council is preparing to vote on a resolution to deploy observers to the city, with Syria-allied Russia giving cautious backing to the measure. “We expect to vote unanimously for this text tomorrow at 9am (2pm GMT),” the US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told reporters on Sunday after more than three hours of negotiations.
The current evacuation deal was reached after protracted negotiations brokered by Russia and Turkey, and repeatedly obstructed by Iran and its proxy militias in Syria. It allows for the evacuation of tens of thousands of Aleppo’s civilians as well as the parallel evacuation 4,000 people from Fua and Kefraya, two Shia villages in the neighbouring province of Idlib that have been under a rebel siege for years.
The fragile and delicate evacuation almost fell apart over the weekend because powerful al-Qaida-linked militants in Idlib opposed the agreement, and a renegade faction allied to them attacked and burned buses headed towards Fua and Kefraya.
The move was met with widespread condemnation by other rebel factions who said the faction was “gambling” with the fate of tens of thousands of Aleppo’s civilians.
Five buses carrying residents from Fua and Kefraya were expected to complete the evacuation of a few hundred people on Monday morning, paving the way for the rest of the buses carrying east Aleppo residents to be released by government forces and for the resumption of the evacuation.
Nine thousand civilians and the majority of fighters in the rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo have now been evacuated. Refugees on the buses sent desperate messages on Sunday night describing terrible conditions as they were held for hours with dwindling water and food.
Those still in east Aleppo, most of which fell under government control in a rapid offensive that has allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to reclaim most of Syria’s former commercial capital, are enduring harsh winter weather as they await rescue through the evacuation deal, which is overseen by Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers.
“The people we are welcoming have been through hell – the level of trauma they have experienced is impossible to describe or comprehend,” said Casey Harrity, the director of programmes at Mercy Corps, which is providing aid to civilians who have been evacuated. “We are working very hard to ensure they are received with as much dignity and support as possible.”