Tuesday, March 28

HISTORIC EVENT FOR SYRIA: Government evacuation of 'rebels' from Homs

Robert Fisk presents his report on the evacuation as a highly dramatic literary piece (see below).  SANA, Syria's state information agency, presents a report on the same event that is long on bare facts and short on drama. Both versions are helpful to understanding the significance -- and technical aspects -- of the evacuation.

Because it's shorter than Fisk's report I'll start with SANA's version, datelined March 27, which features a prosaic photograph of the evacuation (shown above).  And note SANA's prosaic labeling of these cutthroats as "gunmen" [smiling] Well, the government is very generous toward those Syrians who want to stop fighting.   

Updated-more than 500 gunmen and their family members leave al-Wa’er Neighborhood in Homs

Homs, SANA – More than 500 gunmen and some of their family members on Monday left al-Wa’er neighborhood in Homs city and headed for the northeastern countryside of Aleppo.

The evacuation of the second batch came within the framework of the reconciliation agreement which aims to evacuate all gunmen and weapons from the neighborhood and pave the way for the return of all state-owned institutions to it.

In a statement to SANA, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi noted that the reconciliation agreement is being implemented according the set program which extends between 6 to 8 weeks, adding that the third batch of gunmen who reject to join the agreement will leave next Saturday.

He said that more than 600 persons have settled their legal status in the last week, including 120 gunmen.

Head of Homs Health Directorate, Hassan al-Jendi said that a medical team has been prepared to provide vaccine to children in addition to a clinic to provide citizens, who are leaving the neighborhood, with healthcare services.

On March 18th, 423 gunmen, who rejected to follow the reconciliation agreement and 1056 members of their families left the neighborhood, while the legal status of hundreds of persons had been settled according to the amnesty decree No. 15 for 2016.

by Robert Fisk reporting from Homs
March 28 - approx. 4:15 am Syria time
The Independent

Soon the Assad regime will be able to claim complete control of the major city of Homs for the first time in years. Robert Fisk witnesses a day of huge significance in the history of Syria

They came out of the dawn. Young men dressed and scarved in black and carrying Kalashnikovs, old men in wheelchairs, mothers in midnight niqabs, a teenager with a child in one arm and a strapped rifle draped over the other, a serious man with a big gold and green Koran in his right hand and a small figure with a vast shaggy beard, the very last Che Guevara, walking and limping and sometimes marching almost nonchalantly onto the buses. They came from the very last rebel enclave in Homs. And they were, some of them, going to fight another day.

They didn’t look at us. They didn’t look at the Russian soldiers or the Syrian troops or the policemen or the plain clothes Syrian cops or the Red Crescent women; they didn’t bother to glance at the cameras that whirred and clicked their faces off to posterity; not that you could see many of the women behind their face covers and black scarves as they climbed slowly onto the buses. But one young man in a red and white track suit who glowered towards us, turned back once he was on the bus, behind the safety of the window.

And he grinned and put his right finger in the air above his head and turned it round and round for his audience on the street outside. "We are coming back," it said. We are not leaving. We are not surrendering. But of course, no-one had asked these hundreds of men and women to surrender. Months of negotiations and trust and a lot of suspicion are slowly emptying the withered, smashed suburb of al-Wa’er of its armed men. Al-Wa’er means a barren place, a place without flowers, a place where nothing grows.

So what might grow after this exodus of people – Syrians for the most part, although one man must have been a Sudanese and Che Guevara looked as though he was probably a Saudi – and what peace might it bring to central Syria? All were sent in their fleets of buses north to Jerablus on the Turkish border where the Syrian government hopes, without saying so, that they will seep across into Turkey and never return. But that wasn’t what the governor of Homs was telling them. He walked to the buses and pleaded with the departing thousands to stay. You will be safe, he told them. You can stay in your homes. You will not be arrested.

There was a middle-aged man with a limp who sported a sniper’s rifle, burly men with shoulder bags whose contents we could only guess at and so many more young mothers and children, some who looked unwell, and babies who must have been born under siege. The Russians watched impassively, tall, well-fed soldiers in flak jackets and steel helmets, guarding the lives of ferociously opposed enemies – the militiamen emerging from the slums and the Syrian troops watching them leave for the far north. Colonel Sergei Druzon of the Russian army looked on like a little Zhukov. This may not have been a military victory for Moscow – but by heavens it was a political victory for the Russians to have taken over the role of UN peacekeepers – if only for a day – on the Syrian front line.

But epic dramas like this need subjectivity as well as cynical truth. Within two days, 160 fighters had reportedly chosen to stay in a new government-controlled al-Waer, laying down their weapons and choosing to trust the government they have fought. Another 215 men and women, including 50 fighters, chose to leave. A further 450 were to join them. The figures climbed throughout the day. But what was so striking was the normality of it all – maybe "naturalness" gets closer to the feeling – because here were lethal enemies, the armed groups of al-Wa’er (Nusrah/al-Qaeda among them) and the Syrian army and special forces who had fought and killed each other and whose monstrous war still consumes Syria, standing only 15 metres apart, scarcely even bothering to look at each other.

At first, it was all very self-conscious. The Syrians eyed the crowds and especially the gunmen among them, desperate to believe their promises of safe conduct and allowed to carry their small arms and rifles. But the "rebels" – and here the quotation marks are necessary because there were at least 15 different versions of them – tried to look casual, almost bored, as if it was the most tiresome thing in the world to abandon your home (or at least your battleground) and sidle past your enemies to try a new life elsewhere.

Then came the defiant ones. Instead of carrying their weapons in their left hands, between themselves and the buses where the cameras couldn’t snap their guns, they made their way through the tapered columns with their AKs in their right hand, happy to be seen with them although often virtually masked by black scarves, defiant rather than defeated. And then, after a couple of hours, they would approach the front of their queues with a vague curiosity. They looked at the Syrian soldiers with a faint interest. So THIS was the enemy, their eyes said. But they said nothing.

No-one offered a word. No one spoke or prayed or cried – for many were leaving their homes, perhaps forever – and save for the roar of the buses and the Syrian jets which daggered meaningfully through the skies overhead (and surely this was a message from the government), not a sound came from these hundreds of men and women. If this was Hollywood – and none could deny the drama – it was a largely silent movie. Maybe there should have been a piano in the background or a list of captions to tell the audience what the actors were thinking. But all we got were dozens of tourist buses, advertising Syrian tours around a country which no sane person would or could tour, save for those boarding these very same buses for the north.

There were a few named characters in this theatre. There was, for example, the imam in his long gown who walked from the departing masses whose name was Sheikh Attalah and who shook the hands of the mufti of Homs, Sheikh Issam al-Musri, who came to greet him from the government side. Al-Musri pleaded with his friend to stay in Homs, not to board the buses. Attalah – and his words were almost inaudible -- spoke of a decision taken 24 hours earlier to leave. The word went round that he spoke of a "fatwa" issued by some authority (unknown) that threatened anyone who stayed with death. But there was no confirmation of this.

Then the governor of Homs, a tall, deeply thoughtful man – a businessman in Dubai before Bashar al-Assad asked him to take over Homs, a man involved in public relations in the Gulf and who also indulged in film production in his previous incarnation (which surely must have helped him in al-Wa’er), who admitted that, yes, he was “deeply saddened” that so many had chosen to leave. “I pleaded with them,” Talal al-Barazi said. “I told them not to be unafraid, that they could stay in their homes, lay down their arms. I told the Syrian fighters they were our people, that they were welcome to stay in their homes, that they could trust our word.”

There had been bitter disagreement between the "rebel" groups. Some wanted to go to Idlib to join their comrades there. Others opted for the Turkish border. Colonel Druzon admitted there had been much debate about the destination of the buses. The rows between competing armed groups had already caused long delays in the departure programme, which will continue again next week. And what of those who will nonetheless make their way to the big killer zone of Idlib? Will they, too, be bombed once more, even by the air force comrades of the Russian soldiers protecting them on the edge of al-Wa'er?

Mr al-Barazi – and you cannot fault the man’s optimism – said that many would still remain, that 150 had agreed to stay in the past two days, that everyone, the religious leaders, including the Christian clergy, had added their names to their guarantees of safety. But then, looking at those black-clad figures with their guns and children and niqabed wives, would you, reader, trust yourself – if you were them, heavens above -- to the regime you had been trying to destroy for more than six years? War crimes have been committed across this poor country by every side – and no-one has yet dared to produce a figure for the hundreds of kidnap victims in Homs (yes, again, by both sides) since the start of this war.

And so they continued to walk up the red and white tapes towards the buses. Many looked poor and they had the plastic suitcases and zipper-bags of the poor and the children had clothes that were either too pink or two green and who looked as if no-one had combed their hair for many days. They weren’t all like this. There were a few dapper shoes, some niqab-chic and a man faithfully clutching a satellite dish. Perhaps he wanted, up in Jerablus, to plug it in and view his own exodus.

“One by one,” an armed Syrian policemen said loudly to several departing gunmen, and they waited and kept their patience and walked obediently to the buses. But this was the saddest departure, for most of the hundreds who queued to leave were not foreigners and this portended further dispossession and pain and loss and the young man who indicated that he would return meant what he said and he didn’t intend to come back without his gun. Alas, it was the same old story. The Syrians were on the move again.



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