Many of those trapped in the Syrian city of Homs are finally getting out

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Marco Werman: Hi, I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. The expression hell on earth is probably overused, but if you listen to eye witnesses who are in Homs, Syria's third largest and embattled city, that's exactly what it sounds like. Matthew Hollingworth: You're looking at a place that is rather like Stalingrad in 1942. There's not a single building, not one structure which hasn't been affected by the fighting. Werman: That's Matthew Hollingworth. He's a Syria Country Director for the World Food Program and he's been at home since Friday. That's when a tenuous cease-fire went into effect allowing some humanitarian aid to get in and some residents to get out. Hollingworth says Homs is a city in ruins. Hollingworth: 600 days of siege means that it is destroyed. People are living in basements. They are crawling through tunnels between buildings, living in existence and nothing more than that. Werman: Who's left in Homs? I mean, how many people are still there and how many people are fleeing? Hollingworth: So far, 1,100 -- more than 1,100 people have come out through the evacuation process this last week. There are double that left behind and we're going to try and continue the evacuations for those that want to choose to come out, but you know, there are certainly a lot more people left. Werman: They're staying behind because there's just no way for them to get out? Are any of them staying behind because they want to stay? Hollingworth: There are people that don't want to leave. You know, people that don't want to leave their homes -- their ancestral homes. There are also many disabled -- people who are you know, sick or not able bodied to get out easily. And there are others that are frightened to come out, but you know, are looking now at potentially taking a leap because the situation is just so desperate inside. But again, we've seen a lot more people come out than anybody imagined. Werman: Yeah, and with this desperation, Matthew, has the evacuation been mostly orderly or chaotic? Hollingworth: There's been moments of chaos and there's been often moments of order. We continued the evacuation process despite some very high profile [?] of the cease-fire. At those times it was certainly chaotic. The last pullout of people yesterday was actually a lot more orderly, but then again that's because people have seen it work and they've seen the success of the operation over the days previously. Werman: Matthew, can you give us a description of just what it looks like? These people who have been basically burrowed into their apartment buildings for almost three years and now emerging to you guys and buses. I mean, what are they taking with them? How do they look? Hollingworth: I mean, everybody is a bag of bones, to be honest. You know, you're looking at people that certainly for the last few months -- three, four, five, six months have had very little food. I've met you know, little children that when we give them a meal when they first come out, they don't recognize an apple. They don't know what a banana is. They've never seen fresh fruit. People haven't eaten meat for two years or more. It really is shocking -- the level of deprivation the people have lived through. Werman: What are the actual logistics of getting food to these people? I mean, for kids who don't even recognize a banana are they able to hold food down at this point? Hollingworth: We've got medical personnel on hand. When they first come out we've got psychosocial support when people come out for those who have been mentally effected by the situation that they're living in. They certainly have had a couple of interesting first nights out of the city. It's a lot quieter. There's no fighting. It's a lot more comfortable and food is available to them, but they haven't had access to it for many, many months now. Werman: Finally Matthew, how visible are rebel or army fighters in the streets of Homs? Hollingworth: In Homs you certainly do see opposition fighters above ground. Civilians are a lot more careful in coming out, but in saying that when we spent eight hours in Homs two days ago we met a lot of people, certainly a lot more than people expected. And people came out to see us specifically because we're the first people who have come for a long time. Werman: The UN's Matthew Hollingworth in Homs -- thanks very much for your time. Hollingworth: My pleasure. Werman: Well, the cease-fire in Homs has allowed hundreds of residents to evacuate. Some haven't made it very far. About 300 men and boys have been detained by government forces. That's because the government says they are of potential fighting age -- between 15 and 55. Their detention has alarmed UN humanitarian officials who helped broker the cease-fire. Melissa Fleming is a spokesperson for the UN's refugee agency. Melissa Fleming: UNHCR is there monitoring the whole situation and in fact, it was known that they would question the men who were not part of the deal. The deal that was agreed between the government and the opposition was that the evacuation would include women and children and those who are over -- men who are over 55 and under 15. So many people took the opportunity to escape the besieged city of Homs. When our cars went in and our vans went in and our buses went in that what emerged was that there were a number -- over 300 men who did not meet that criteria and who are now being questioned by Syrian authorities. In a school several have been released and they're being taken to parts of the city where we can deliver aid. Werman: So, if that deal was between the Assad government and the opposition, did the UN and the UNHCR have problems with it? Fleming: UNHCR and the UN were very much aware of the deal. We were pleased to have any opportunity to access the besieged old city of Homs -- people cut off from any form of aid for almost two years. And to provide the opportunity for people to escape, to leave, to be evacuated from the city -- these people were on the verge of starvation. We were shocked at their condition. They were in a state of health that was really, really troubling. Kids were traumatized and people were eating grass and weeds. And time -- and it was just high time that these people got out so that we could treat them as best we could. We hope that every civilian who wants to be evacuated or every civilian who needs humanitarian assistance will be able to receive it due to this humanitarian pause that will last a few more days. Werman: So, the UN accepted this deal, knowing the risks that possibly some men and boys might be pulled aside, but realizing that if you did nothing it could be worse? Fleming: We're in a war situation and our role is as a neutral body to reach people in need of aid with humanitarian assistance. In many places of Syria this has not been possible. This is hugely disturbing to us. We have a couple more days of cease-fire and we're very much hoping that all civilians who want to leave the city have the opportunity to do so. They're in a desperate state. Werman: And Melissa, what can you tell us about what's happening to those males in that school? Are they being questioned? Fleming: There's a procedure where they're being screened and questions and some of them have gone through the procedure and they've then been free to leave. Many of them have moved to a part of the outskirts of Homs where UNHCR, UNICEF, other organizations will follow up. We've been able in the school to talk to these people separately and to assess their particular needs, their health needs. Many of them, for example, have come with their wives and their children. They just didn't want to be separated. Werman: Have your people on the ground been able to tell you what kinds of things are being asked and why they're being questioned? Fleming: This is -- no. This is something that -- no. I'm not going to get into that. Sorry. Werman: Can you tell us why they're being questioned, though? Fleming: They're being questioned to determine the nature of their role inside the city. Werman: But I mean, if these men and boys are being questioned, certainly the UNHCR has some worries about where that could lead. Fleming: UNHCR is in -- as our UNICEF are monitoring the situation in the school. Werman: Melissa Fleming, spokesperson with the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees -- thanks very much for your time. Fleming: Thank you.