Three buses brought 83 people — most of them older men — out of the center of the besieged Syrian city of Homs on Friday, Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick McDonnell tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block.
As NPR's Alice Fordham reminds us from Beirut, "after months of wrangling," the government of President Bashar Assad and rebels agreed Thursday on a plan to allow some civilians to leave Homs and some humanitarian aid to get in. The plan, she says, is that "people under the age of 15 or over 55, and all women, will be able to leave the area safely. ... Two or 3,000 people live in the rebel-held area. They have been surrounded by soldiers for two years."
Reuters calls the deal on evacuations and aid, "the first positive result of peace talks which were launched two weeks ago between Syria's warring foes and resume on Monday in Geneva, with little prospect of resolving core grievances behind a war which has killed 130,000 people."
McDonnell was among a group of reporters brought to Homs to observe the evacuations. He said that those who were taken out today, which included a small number of women and children but were mostly men in their 50s or 60s, "appeared certainly haggard, but they didn't have that gaunt look of starvation. They weren't in great shape. They were cold and happy to have a meal, which they got immediately upon being evacuated. ... They spoke about a very difficult life indeed under siege inside the old city of Homs."
The evacuees told reporters of "constant sniping" in the city, heavy shelling and relatively little food, McDonnell added. "They lived a very difficult life. ... There hasn't been an aid convoy since May 2012."
Shelters, McDonnell said, have reportedly been set up for them by the Assad regime in "safe areas." The evacuees are also supposed to be allowed to travel elsewhere if they wish — perhaps to be with relatives or to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Evacuations are supposed to continue over the next few days, with perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 people allowed to leave the city, McDonnell reported.
Much more from the conversation with McDonnell is due on Friday's All Things Considered. Click here to find a NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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Today, a small sign of progress in Syria, measured by the busload. The first group of civilians was allowed to leave the besieged city of Homs. Three busloads of women, children and elderly men were evacuated from a rebel-held area of central Homs, where they've been under siege for a year and a half, surrounded by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Patrick McDonnell with the Los Angeles Times was in Homs today to cover the evacuation, and he joins me now. Patrick, I've seen estimates of 2,500 civilians who were trapped in Homs. How many got out today?
PATRICK MCDONNELL: Well, the final count we had after three busloads was just 83, most seemed to be men. There were some women and some children. They appeared totally haggard, but they didn't have that kind of gaunt look of starvation. They weren't in great shape and they were cold and they were happy to have a meal, which they got immediately upon being evacuated. And they spoke about a very difficult life, indeed, under siege inside the old city of Homs.
BLOCK: Now, when you say most of them were men, this deal that was brokered by the U.N. between the Syrian government and the opposition was supposed to exclude men between the ages of 15 and 55 for evacuations. So who were the men who were allowed to leave?
MCDONNELL: I mean, it appeared all of them were 50s, 60s or above. Some of them may have been early 50s. And, you know, we don't know exactly if anybody in those age ranges exactly was excluded. People haven't been very specific on the deal. One gentleman I talked to had been a taxi driver. He seemed very haggard, hadn't worked in some time. They were living in a situation where there was constant sniping, there were snipers, and there was intermittent, very heavy shelling at times. So they were at risk of their life and there was relatively little food. People foraged. There were some food smuggled in. There was some food leftover, and they lived a very difficult life. And there hasn't been an aid convoy since May 2012, which is almost two years at this point, that has gotten into the old city.
BLOCK: Where are these evacuees being taken? And how safe will it be where they're going?
MCDONNELL: Well, I mean, we've been told they're being taken to safe areas, or they can go wherever they want. At least, this is the way it's been put to us. This is very much a priority of the Syrian government, which obviously wants to be showing progress on the humanitarian front. They've assured at least the international media that these people will be put in shelter and taken care of, provided food and all their needs.
BLOCK: Patrick, there's a lot of concern about the people who are excluded from this deal, who will not be allowed to leave, and that's men between the ages of 15 and 55, who will be stuck in Homs. What happens to them?
MCDONNELL: That's a good question and that really has not been addressed. And we asked the governor of Homs and others about that today, and they said that this is strictly for civilians and it's - and the aid is meant for civilians, and what will happen to men of fighting age who are still in there. And we don't know how many they are, whether there are 500 or a thousand. It's just kind of an open question.
BLOCK: So is the assumption by the Syrian government then that all of the men in that age group are fighters, they are not civilians?
MCDONNELL: I would say that would be their strong suspicion. Some of the really small, small area in the center of Homs, I mean, originally, the rebels occupied a very large chunk of central Homs. And they've been kind of beaten back over the last two years to maybe a two-square-mile area, maybe possibly less, right in the center which a lot of fighters from other areas kind of congregated into. So, I mean, the government feels pretty strongly that there's quite a lot of fighters from other areas who congregated there, and they would be in those age groups. So they're suspicious of that. And that's something they're concerned about.
BLOCK: Were you able to talk to any of the people who were fleeing today?
MCDONNELL: Yeah. We were able to - they brought them to kind of a temporary shelter in a former restaurant, interestingly enough. And people were eating and they were very grateful to be out. They talked about how difficult things were in Homs. One person said to me that we live daily on the edge between life and death. Many of them were hunkered down in their homes, afraid to leave because of the snipers, because of the shelling. Getting food was a constant problem. One gentleman spoke to me about, it's getting a little bit warmer here. It's getting on towards spring. And people looking for things growing in green areas that could be edible. So clearly, life was extremely difficult.
BLOCK: Patrick McDonnell with the Los Angeles Times. He spoke with us from the Syrian city of Tartus. Patrick, thanks so much.
MCDONNELL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.