The inside story of the Aleppo evacuation
Between the 15 and 22 December, 2016 one of the largest and most complex evacuations of civilians in recent history, took place from the Syrian city of Aleppo. The warring parties had agreed that the neutral and impartial International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) should be asked to facilitate the evacuation of thousands of people from the eastern part of the city. Here, for the first time is the inside story of those fraught and dangerous December days…
The shelling had been incessant. The suffering immeasurable. The battle for Aleppo had ripped the heart out of the city and drained it of its soul. The city had been divided between east and west but the front lines were a complex patchwork. Sieges within sieges.
In four years of bitter fighting, thousands had died, hundreds of thousands had been forced to flee their homes. Now, it all boiled down to a few square kilometres in eastern Aleppo, as government forces closed in. Hundreds perhaps, thousands, of lives were at stake, unless an immediate evacuation of eastern Aleppo could take place.
The ICRC had been calling for a humanitarian pause for months in order to create the space that would allow in humanitarian aid. Finally, talks between the two sides, which had been facilitated on the ground by the ICRC, led to a breakthrough. There would be an evacuation. The ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), would be asked to organise it.
“Right up until the last moment it wasn’t clear if the evacuation would take place,” said the head of the ICRC in Syria, Marianne Gasser. “At dawn, fighting was still ongoing. The situation was extremely tense. Then, all of a sudden, we got the green light.” It was Thursday, 15 December.
With the temperature hovering around freezing, a single ICRC vehicle, with Marianne Gasser, two ICRC colleagues and three Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) colleagues, slowly moved forwards. It had been six months since any ICRC staff had been into eastern Aleppo. They were heading into the unknown.
“It was a sea of rubble, collapsed buildings and burnt out cars. And there was the ever present danger of mines or unexploded ordnance. We had to get out of the car to wave the flag, so that everyone knew who we were. A few minutes later we were forced to stop. The road was impassable. A bulldozer had to be brought in to the clear the road. We lost another hour.”
With the road cleared, the vehicle finally entered eastern Aleppo.
“It was one of the most moving sights I’ve ever witnessed. Thousands of people — mainly women and children — waiting to be evacuated. Many were in rags, carrying old bags, suitcases, rucksacks. Haunted looks. Exhaustion, fear, anxiety, hope etched into their faces. And, all around, this immense destruction.”
“When we got out of the car, we could hardly move. It was so packed. How had these people managed to live for so long under such hardship? It looked like the end of the world.”
As the ICRC and SARC team assessed the situation, twenty green buses and ten ambulances set off to join them, ready to be loaded with those waiting.
Three anti-tank mines on the road had to be removed by Russian military personnel.
“There were people in wheelchairs. One of them had only three wheels and it had to be half pushed, half dragged across the broken ground. It was heartbreaking. Then it started to rain.”
“There were so many children. Many under ten years old. Hardly any of them had warm clothes. They were silent, no sound, not a smile. They didn’t even cry. Faces without any expression.”
Later on, the ICRC’s health co-ordinator, who was also in Aleppo, Avril Patterson, witnessed the same.
“There were so many children. And so many of them were silent. That’s not normal. They should be shouting, they should be complaining about how they are cold or hungry. They were not behaving like children. And you see in the people the difference, there is a look about besieged people. You see the pallor, the colour of their skin,” she said.
At around 14.30, under the spotlight of live television, the twenty green buses and thirteen ambulances (three came from inside) crunched and crawled their way out of eastern Aleppo.
On a bridge, on the outskirts of the enclave, Russian troops conducted a light screening of those leaving, amounting to nothing more than a look through the windows of the buses.
“The majority of people were women and children and the elderly. They were not necessarily malnourished, but there was a clear hopelessness in their eyes,” said another ICRC worker, Ahmed Zaroug.
“I was trying to imagine this old lady in eastern Aleppo. What was she thinking? All her life at home, in a normal situation. And now having to leave, carrying all her life’s possessions in a small bag. But not just her — all these thousands of people.”
In the first convoy, 1013 people, including twenty-eight wounded, 678 adults and 299 children, were brought out. Escorted by staff from ICRC and SARC, they would then make the thirty-minute journey to opposition-held Western Rural Aleppo and then, maybe, on to Idleb.
Despite initial tensions and worries, the first convoy had been a success. By 16.20, the second convoy was heading in. The pace now quickened.
As each convoy arrived in the enclave, large crowds would gather around the buses. It seemed everyone wanted to leave, fearful that the ceasefire could collapse at any moment and the fighting begin again.
SARC and ICRC tried to manage the crowds as best as they could. There was concern that the situation could get out of hand. The decision was taken to keep working through the night. In the bitter cold, the convoys kept moving.
By day two, twelve convoys had made the journey. Private cars were now also leaving. Eight thousand people had got out and were on their way to opposition-held territory.
But then everything was thrown into doubt. The thirteenth convoy was suddenly blocked from leaving.
“It became clear that issues relating to the simultaneous evacuations from the towns of Foua and Kefraya were causing the problem,” said Ms Gasser.
People in Foua and Kefraya wanted to leave for government-controlled territory but had been blocked by armed opposition groups. The ICRC was not involved in the evacuations from the other towns but they had now become inextricably linked with that of eastern Aleppo.
Night had fallen and hundreds of people remained stuck on buses, in no-man’s land. There were efforts to provide them with food and water and access to ‘toilets’. But to no avail.
Tensions rose. The stalemate continued for two days. In the afternoon of day four, a number of buses were attacked and set on fire close to Foua and Kefraya. The situation was becoming ever more perilous and complex. Thousands of lives hung in the balance.
On the ground, there was a heavy presence of Russian, Syrian and now Iranian forces close to eastern Aleppo. Thousands of opposition fighters remained in eastern Aleppo.
Negotiations carried on in the background between the different sides. Amidst the fear, there came one piece of positive news on 18 December. One woman in eastern Aleppo, who was due to give birth, did so in one of the SARC ambulances. The baby survived, as did the mother. They were later transferred on one of the buses when the operation resumed. Born in no-man’s land.
But apart from this, there was real fear that the whole operation would have to be called off.
Complex negotiations, involving the parties, continued. How many people and buses could leave one place, before their counterparts could leave another?
Eventually, a new deal was struck. Around 23.30 on Sunday 18 December — day four — the buses finally started moving again. The evacuation would continue for four more days. “It was an incredible relief that the operation could re-start,” said Marianne Gasser.
A massive crowd had built up at the embarkation point in eastern Aleppo. It seemed that everyone wanted to get out while they could. Convoy after convoy left eastern Aleppo.
“It was amazing to see the faces of the people in the buses and old cars. They were waving and smiling. You could see the relief in their eyes.”
“Many thought they would die or be injured if they remained in eastern Aleppo and the fighting began again.”
By Tuesday, 21 December — day seven of the evacuation — heavy snow was falling. Temperatures were around -5c. Conditions were worsening. Eastern Aleppo and its rubble had been covered in a blanket of virgin white — a grotesque irony on the horror beneath.
Old cars broke down en route out of eastern Aleppo, their occupants pushing and pulling to get moving again. Many fighters were leaving at this stage. A sense of urgency under the surface.
“Our priority, aside from helping the most vulnerable, had been to ensure that civilians were leaving of their own free will.”
In a remarkable operation, involving more than 100 ICRC and SARC staff, working day and night and in the most difficult of circumstances, more than 35,000 people were evacuated from eastern Aleppo in eight days. In addition, 1,200 people were evacuated from Foua and Kefraya as part of the sychronised movement. People from all sides looked the same: a mixture of exhaustion, anxiety and hope.
“The civilians who chose to leave must be able to return to their homes when they want to”, said Ms Gasser. “One day, many will want to come back.”
“But the sad truth is that the Syrian war is not yet over. During the past six years, I have seen so much suffering in this beautiful country. Children under the age of six have known nothing other than war in their short lives. I’ve seen so many false dawns. The ICRC and SARC will continue to do our work. I just hope the politicians can find a solution as soon as possible to this living nightmare for so many people.”