For Syrian evacuees, civil war bus bombing a tragic end to a tragic deal

The interior of a damaged bus is seen after an explosion yesterday at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria

By John Davison

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Mothers Noha, a Shi’ite, and Samira, a Sunni, were besieged for nearly two years on each side of Syria’s civil war. At the weekend they finally escaped the suffocating blockades under an evacuation agreement – but their ordeal was not over.

As they waited at two transit points miles apart outside Aleppo, a bomb attack hit Noha’s bus convoy, killing more than 120 people including dozens of children. After ambulances rushed off the wounded, new buses arrived and the two convoys eventually reached their destinations – one in government territory and the other in rebel territory.

In the hours leading up to Saturday’s attacks, the two women spoke to Reuters about what they had left behind, their families being split up, and the likelihood they would never return home.

Reuters was not allowed back past security to try to find Noha after the blast, and lost contact with Samira after speaking to her earlier on another evacuee’s phone.

“We’ve lost everything. We hope to go back one day, but I don’t expect we will,” said Noha, 45, asking not to be identified by her last name.

Noha left al-Foua, one of two Shi’ite villages besieged by Syrian insurgents in Idlib province with her two youngest children and 5,000 other people under a deal between the Syrian government and armed opposition.

In exchange, 2,000 Sunni residents and rebel fighters from the government-besieged town of Madaya near Damascus – Samira’s hometown – were given safe passage out, and bussed to Idlib province, a rebel stronghold, via Aleppo.

Thousands of Syrians have been evacuated from besieged areas in recent months under deals between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels fighting for six years to unseat him.

The deals have mostly affected Sunni Muslims living in rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces and their allies. Damascus calls them reconciliation deals and says it allows services to be restored in the wrecked towns.

Rebels say it amounts to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centres in the west of the country, and engenders demographic change because most of the opposition, and Syria’s population, are Sunni.

But backed militarily by Russia and Shi’ite regional allies, Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, has negotiated the deals from a position of strength.

“There was little choice. We had to leave, we were scared,” said Samira, 55, who was traveling with her five adult sons.

She had feared her sons would be arrested or forced to join the Syrian military and fight once troops and officials of the Damascus government moved into the town.

Like Noha, Samira was relieved to have escaped a crushing siege which had caused widespread hunger – and in the case of Madaya, starvation – but had left everything behind, including family.

“We owned three houses, farmland and three shops in Madaya town. Now, we don’t have a single Syrian pound,” she said.

Her daughter, pregnant with a third child, had stayed in Madaya because her husband had vowed to “live and die” there, she said.

Samira has not heard from her own husband for nearly four years after he was arrested by Syrian authorities.


With nothing left and no place to stay in Idlib other than camps, Samira said she would try to migrate, joining the 5 million Syrian refugees who have left since the war broke out in 2011. More than 6 million are internally displaced.

“I don’t want to be in Idlib, we know no one there. Also you don’t know when or where the jets might bomb,” she said, referring to the heavy bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes of rebel-held areas in Idlib – including a recent alleged poison gas attack.

“The plan is to try to get to Turkey, to leave Syria for good.”

Noha was also heading into the unknown.

“I don’t know where we’ll live, whether they (authorities) have anything set up. At the very least, we just want to be safe. The children jump at night from the sound of rockets. We just want security, wherever they take us,” she said.

Her adult son and daughter had stayed in al-Foua but were hoping to leave in the next stage of the evacuation deal. Noha’s husband had been killed, but she did not say how.

Both women said they would never have left their hometowns but for the strangling sieges, which caused severe food and medicine shortages, and the gradual change of control in each area.

Government forces moved into Madaya on Friday. Rebels are also due to leave nearby Zabadani as part of the deal. In al-Foua and Kefraya, hundreds of pro-government fighters were evacuated, and the agreement will pave the way for insurgents to take over.

Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped Assad gain the upper hand against rebels in the west of the country in the last 18 months and he now controls all of Syria’s most populous cities there, although insurgents have made gains in some areas.

But with the war that has killed hundreds of thousands far from over, those displaced in swap deals see return a long way off.

“People have built their houses and worked their whole lives setting themselves up, and now they’ve left, with nothing, zero,” Noha said.

(Additional reporting by Ammar Abdullah; Editing by Anna Willard)

Turkey to set up camp for Aleppo evacuees in Syria

By Umit Ozdal

CILVEGOZU, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey plans to set up a camp inside Syria to host people evacuated from the city of Aleppo but will continue to take the sick and wounded to Turkish hospitals, officials said on Friday.

Two potential sites, around 3.5 km (2 miles) inside Syria, have been identified for a camp with the capacity to host up to 80,000 people, two senior officials told Reuters.

“Work on the infrastructure for the camp will begin shortly,” another official from the Turkish aid organization IHH said by phone from inside Syria. The camp will be jointly set up by the Turkish Red Crescent, disaster agency AFAD and IHH.

The IHH official said evacuees had so far largely found shelter with relatives in and around Syria’s Idlib province, southwest of Aleppo, but added that work to identify those with nowhere to go was under way.

Some arrived on Friday at a clinic in Syria close to the Turkish border gate of Cilvegozu where they were tended to by Turkish aid workers, video footage obtained by Reuters showed.

“We were bombed by a plane,” said one man, his head and arm bandaged, lying on a bed hugging his young son.

“All my family were killed and all I have left is him and a daughter,” he said. He had been told his daughter had been brought to Turkey but did not know her condition or whereabouts.

Turkey has taken in 55 wounded or sick evacuees, according to Hasan Aydinlik, head of an emergency response division of the Turkish Health Ministry. He told reporters at the Cilvegozu crossing that one of the wounded had died in hospital while four people, including a child, were in serious condition.

The evacuation of the last opposition-held areas of Aleppo was suspended on Friday after pro-government militias demanded that wounded people should also be brought out of two Shi’ite Muslim villages being besieged by rebels.

Turkey says that close to 8,000 people – rebels and civilians – have been evacuated under a ceasefire deal it brokered with Russia.

Turkey is already sheltering around 2.7 million Syrian refugees. An aid official with Syrian NGO Shafak, working on the Aleppo evacuation, said he expected more people to head for the Turkish border as the villages west of Aleppo were now full.

Aleppo was divided between government and rebel areas of control for much of the nearly six-year-old civil war. But a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies that began in mid-November saw the insurgents lose most of their territory.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun and Ercan Gurses in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Editing by Daren Butler and Nick Tattersall/Mark Heinrich)

Evacuees trickle back into Canadian city hit wildfire

Fort McMurray evacuees begin packing belongings away as they prepare to head back into Fort McMurray after the wildfires.

By Topher Seguin

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (Reuters) – Thousands of evacuees who fled a massive wildfire in the Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray began to trickle back to their homes on Wednesday, though the water was still not safe to drink and other services were limited.

More than 90,000 residents fled the remote northern Alberta city as the fire hit four weeks ago, burning entire neighborhoods. Officials expect 14,000 to 15,000 to return on Wednesday as a two week staged re-entry gets underway.

Downtown Fort McMurray, untouched by fire, was quiet but not empty early on Wednesday morning. Some stores were already open, and there was still some smoke in the air.

John Smith, 77, and his wife, Joyce, were bracing for heavy traffic on the main highway leading into the city, as well as what may lie ahead.

“We didn’t even have time to empty the garbage,” he said. “I’m going in first with a flashlight and wearing a mask, and one of us will open the doors and windows and flush the house out.”

The blaze was a devastating blow to a community already reeling from a two-year slump in global crude prices. It shuttered more than a million barrels per day of crude production, though some facilities have since resumed operations.

Early in the morning, police began removing the barricades that had kept residents out of the city. Authorities told those returning to bring two weeks’ worth of food, water and prescription medication. The area is under a boil water advisory and the local hospital’s capabilities are limited.

Some 2,000 residents who had expected to return this week were told on Monday that they should not go back because of risks posed by debris and contaminants, including caustic ash. Among them were Elsie Knister, 63, and her neighbor Mary Lindsey McNutt, 33.

“I have panic attacks, there’s water damage, there are toxins in my furniture and my cupboards, and under the floor,” Knister said. “I am scared of everything right now, and I am going to have to deal with it one day at a time.”

The pair had been staying in Edmonton and moved north to the Wandering River evacuee camp over the weekend in preparation for their return. They said they were not sure where to go next.

“I feel they are bringing people back in here way too quickly,” McNutt said. “My family in Nova Scotia are saying why don’t you come home for the summer? If we are displaced until August or September I will probably get on a plane.”

Deteriorating air quality could force officials to change re-entry plans yet again.

About 10 percent of the city’s homes were destroyed by the blaze, which has blackened more than 580,000 hectares (2,239 square miles).

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Calgary; Editing by Alan Crosby)