The expression "hell on Earth" is overused, but if you listen to eyewitnesses in Homs, Syria's third largest and embattled city, that's exactly what it sounds like.
Matthew Hollingworth, the World Food Program country cirector in Syria, has been there since Friday and says the situation is desperate. “600 days of siege means [Homs] is destroyed. People are living in basements, they are crawling through tunnels between buildings, living an existence and nothing more than that.”
At least 1,100 have been evacuated so far, but there’s twice as many still left behind.
“There are people who don’t want to leave, but some are sick or not able-bodied enough to come out. And then there are others too frightened to come out,” says Hollingworth, but “we’ve seen a lot more come than anybody imagined.”
He says, "You're looking at a place that is rather like Stalingrad in 1942. There is not a single building, not a structure which hasn’t been affected by the fighting."
Most people have had very little food in recent months. "Everybody is a bag of bones’” says Hollingworth. “When we give little children a meal, they don’t recognize an apple and they don’t know what a banana is.”
And leaving Homs is not always safe. UN aid agencies have expressed concern about the safety of scores of men and boys who were detained by the Syrian authorities after being evacuated from Homs.
The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, is monitoring the situation of the detainees, and some have now been released — but neither UN aid workers nor the International Committee of the Red Cross are present during interrogations of the detainees.
UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told The World, "The deal that was agreed to between the government and the opposition was that the evacuation would include women and children and men who were over 55 and under 15." Still, she said, "so many people took the opportunity to escape the besieged city of Homs when our cars, vans and buses went in, that what emerged was that there were a number of men, over 300, who did not meet that criteria."
She says it was known that Syrian officials would question the men who were not part of the age group covered by the deal. Flemming says those men are now being questioned in a school. "Several have been released and they're being taken to parts of the city where we can deliver aid."
She says aid agencies were "pleased to have any opportunity to access the besieged old city of Homs, where people have been cut off from any form of aid for almost 2 years, and to provide the opportunity for people to escape, to leave, to be evacuated from the city. These people were literally 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 it was just high time that these people got out so we could treat them as best we could. They're in a desperate state."
"Hopefully," she adds, "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." In many parts of Syria, it has not been possible to deliver aid and Flemming says "that's hugely disturbing to us."
Editor's note: This article was updated to indicate that the evacuated men being questioned by Syrian authorities did not meet the age criteria of over 55 or under 15.