Evacuations Underway In Besieged Eastern Aleppo As Cease-Fire Holds

Dec 15, 2016
Originally published on December 15, 2016 5:36 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Syria, 3,000 people have been evacuated from the last rebel-held area in Aleppo. The Red Cross says a third convoy is underway to transport thousands more to rebel-held territory. The U.N. calls it a black chapter in Aleppo's history. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad calls it a liberation. NPR's Alison Meuse has more from Beirut.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: The Red Cross and its Syrian partner, the Red Crescent, say hundreds of children and the wounded are among those safely evacuated from eastern Aleppo. In a video posted by activists, people can be seen bidding farewell to those leaving.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MEUSE: An old lady tells the rebels, God be with you, and then sticks her hand out to demand a cigarette. In drone footage published by the Russian military, the first convoy of 20 buses and 13 ambulances can be seen making its way from these devastated neighborhoods.

A Red Cross spokeswoman in Aleppo tells NPR the teams are committed to keep working until everyone who wants to leave is evacuated. For now, a cease-fire brokered by Syria's ally Russia is holding. Humanitarian official Jan Egeland says it was Russia that provided security guarantees for the convoys, but he calls the whole ordeal a black chapter for the city.

JAN EGELAND: Aleppo, for 3,000 years, gave to world civilization, and world civilization was not there to assist the people of Aleppo when they needed us the most.

MEUSE: Before leaving, activists posted graffiti on the walls. One activist, Haleem Khoa (ph), dedicated a famous Arabic poet's words to his love - love me away from the country's oppression and repression, away from our city, which was filled with death - December 15, 2016, the last day. Others wrote words of defiance, promising to return. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the sound of explosions was heard in recent days as rebels destroyed their heavy weapons stores.

Not everyone in Aleppo was sad to see the rebels go. Aleppo was once Syria's commercial hub. In 2012, when the rebels took over the eastern half of the city, many in the opposition called it a liberation. The business class saw it as an invasion, accusing the rebels of looting their factories and sabotaging the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEUSE: It in a video posted to YouTube earlier this week, people living in government-controlled west Aleppo took to the streets. In the pouring rain, they cheered the ouster of the rebels from the other half of their city. They scream out - God, Syria, Bashar - that's it. On Thursday, after the evacuation was well underway, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, proclaimed victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Foreign language spoken).

MEUSE: Assad says people don't remember moments. They remember history. This is history in the making. Aleppo, he says, has been liberated. Alison Meuse, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.