UN agencies said 1,151 people have so far been evacuated from Homs Old City, reporting starvation conditions, with the UN human rights office voicing deep concern at the detention by the Syrian authorities of 336 men and boys and warning that torture and mistreatment is a war crime, the UN news services informs.
Under the “humanitarian pause” women, children and the elderly were allowed to leave but not men over 15 and under 54 years of age. The 336 people detained, apparently not wishing to abandon their families, are in this latter category and were detained by Syrian authorities in a school on the outskirts where UN officials are present but do not attend interrogation sessions.
“It is essential that they do not come to any harm, and along with our colleagues in other UN organizations, we will continue to press for their proper treatment according to the international humanitarian and human rights law,” UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.
He stressed that prohibited acts under the Geneva Conventions include “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, taking of hostages, and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment,” including against members of armed forces who have laid down their arms or have been placed ‘hors de combat’ by sickness, wounds or detention.
Deploring the “disgraceful” fire targeting UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers delivering food and medical aid to Homs on Sunday, he warned: “It is a war crime to deliberately fire on those carrying out humanitarian operations.”
UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs told the briefing that evacuees from Homs are very weak with obvious signs of malnutrition. One man said he had survived for one week on one spoon of bulgur, while other reported eating leaves, grass, olives, and sometimes wheat flour, with the small remaining amounts of bulgur infested by insects.
She said that in January WFP dispatched enough food for 3.7 million people, leaving half a million people without any food aid due to deteriorating security. The agency, which needs to raise about $40 million every week to meet the food needs of people affected by the conflict, faces a serious shortfall and must raise $273 million to cover needs until the end of March in “a hand-to-mouth operation which requires immediate contributions.”
In an interview with UN Radio from Homs, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative Youssouf Abdel-Jelil said children coming out of the Old City “look terrified, frail and emaciated. In general, there are issues of malnutrition and also a need for vaccination for children.” UNICEF reported that evacuees say the same things about the conditions they have left: extreme cold, hunger, dirty water and constant shelling.
UN World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Fadela Chaib an aid convoy brought in agency medicines to treat chronic and infectious diseases to cover nearly 2,000 people for three months, as well as vaccines for polio and others diseases to cover 1,000 children. Many people were suffering from diseases including skin diseases for lack of water and sanitation, she added.
UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is trying to ensure that all civilians who want to can leave Homs and is doing its “very best under the most complicated and dangerous circumstances imaginable” to ensure that as many lives can be saved as possible, spokesperson Melissa Fleming said.
More than 20,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Turkey since the start of the year in the biggest influx since early 2013, with than 500 people, sometimes as many as 1,000 to 2,000, recently arriving every day across official crossing points, she added.