Note to Correspondents: Transcript of Press Stakeout By Special Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Jan Egeland (9 November 2017)
JE: We just finished the meeting of the Humanitarian Task Force, a very bleak report was delivered from us, on the UN side, I feel as if we are now returning to some of the bleakest days of this conflict again, at least the fears are that we are now returning with civilians in cross fire in too many provinces at the same time.
We have had a period of de-escalation in many areas, it helped a lot in terms of less displacement, less killing, less civilians maimed and killed. We are now having reports of attacks against civilians, displacement of civilians from Idlib and Aleppo in the northwest, through Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in the north and the east, and intensively in the central regions, east of Damascus, in Hama and elsewhere.
Nowhere is it as bad as in eastern Ghouta, which is the area just next to the capital Damascus city, it is in rural Damascus, east of the capital. This epicenter of suffering has 400,000 civilians, men, women, and children, in a dozen besieged towns, and villages.
Since September, it has been completely sealed off until September when there was some access with the commercial and other traffic. Now the only life-line would be our convoys. This last week we were, again, unsuccessful in spite of all possible efforts to get convoys into these areas with food and medical supplies. The week before we had three convoys overall, including a large one into these areas that got the first supplies in for many months. The week before that, again, we were completely unsuccessful. Of course we cannot continue like that: if we get only in a fraction of what is needed, it will be a complete catastrophe.
The assessment that was done by our colleagues, they were only there for a few hours the week before this, a week ago, showed that there are now a growing number of acutely malnourished children. If you are acutely malnourished, you are very close to dying. That is why we need also the medical evacuation. Since May we have tried to have large medical evacuations from eastern Ghouta where the medical services have been so hard hit also by the war, and by the lack of supplies.
It is only a little bit more than a dozen patients that have been evacuated through the good efforts, heroic efforts, of the Syrian Red Crescent, so there is an accumulated number now of around 400 men, women, and children, I would estimate maybe three quarters of them are women and children that need to be evacuated now.
We have confirmation of seven patients dead because they were not evacuated, some of these are children. A list of 29 cases was given some time ago, of 29 cases that are the most critical cases, these will die if they are not evacuated, they include 18 children, and among them young Hala, Khadiga, Mounir and Bassem. They all have a name, they all have a story, they all have the urgent need to be evacuated now.
We are still not getting permissions to do this evacuation even though everything is ready. We’ve had minute and detailed planning with the medical groups still functioning inside these areas, with the colleagues in the Syrian Red Crescent, it is all coordinated with the World Health Organization, with the rest of the UN System, we know where to take the cases, we know what treatment they need. So why men in their 50s and 60s like me stop women and children from getting the medical service that will save their lives, is beyond my imagination. It can change tomorrow, if we get the green light we can do it.
Of course it is not by evacuating people you solve the problem. You solve the problem with an end to the fighting and the shelling and it is now cross-fire, there is air raids and shelling from government controlled areas into these areas, but there is also a lot of mortars coming out. I was in contact with colleagues in Damascus city last night, reporting of mortars going on their way.
The violence has to stop and we have to have general access then we can feed and provide to the 400,000 people.
It is not just eastern Ghouta, there are also other areas and let me mention one, the Berm, which is in the south east of Syria, is a desolate area at the border with Jordan. Some 50,000-55,000 civilians are there. The last time there was a partial distribution to these people was in June. We now have, thanks to excellent cooperation with, among others, our two co-chairs, the Russian Federation and the United States, a detailed plan of how to go from within Syria, from Damascus to the Berm and then a further plan to be able to deliver inside this area, that is opposition controlled still. It is urgent that it happens because the reports of suffering within the Berm is tremendous.
There is hope in us making progress, not only on the Berm and on eastern Ghouta, with the fact that the Russian Federation did initiate a trilateral problem solving mechanism, with the UN, the government of Syria and the Russian Federation meeting in Damascus. It had the first meetings, still hasn’t produced the concrete results that were needed, but it is our strong feeling that the Russian Federation wants us to get the access and wants to help us, so we are hopeful that this trilateral mechanism will yield results and that they can yield results starting now.
My final point. Winter is coming, winter in Syria is as hard as it is in Europe, the difference between in Europe and in Syria is that people are now sitting after a 7-year war, longer than the second World War, they have little, if no, reserves, they have no heat in the house, they live in a ruin, it will be a horrific winter. In eastern Ghouta the price of a food basket is ten times that of the average in the country, so people cannot afford food and that will be their situation as the harsh winter is coming.
Question: Mr. Egeland, how many of the so-called de-escalation zones we have in Syria now, four or six, because Mr. de Mistura in his speech to the Security Council he mentioned another two de-confliction zones, so could you clarify this issue? The second question what is the population in Raqqa now and what was the population before the operation took place there?
JE: Well, on the de-escalation zones I don’t know what has been reported from the Astana partners, basically it is 2.6 million people I think, more or less, in these de-escalation zones, and they range from Idlib in the north to Daraa in the south. But listen, eastern Ghouta is a de-escalation zone, there is not much de-escalation there today, and there is not either access, so our strong appeal to the Astana partners that succeeded in delivering de-escalation, even to areas with horrific fighting, is please help re-establish calm, re-establish de-escalation. The exact number I do not know because I am not privy to those negotiations.
In Raqqa, we still do not have access to Raqqa city, as UN, the main reason is that the place is peppered with unexploded bombs, explosives from the Islamic State, that left all that they could in the worst possible way they could, they have been sabotaging work for civilians since the beginning, but also because of the fierce air campaign and the shelling, Raqqa has seen some of the worst fighting in modern times. It is not possible for civilians to return to Raqqa city, but there has been returns to some places in the vicinity. We are providing now supplies for some 400,000 people in or from Raqqa governorate, many of them are displaced in other areas.
Question: Sir, could you give us more details about the Berm city near Jordan border, how many people are trapped there? And what is the hope for you to be able to reach them? Thank you.
JE: The Berm, the main place there is called the Rukban, and our best estimates is around 55,000 people, there could be less, there could be more. These have previously gotten supplies from Jordan, we are now planning to go from Damascus with convoys to the Berm, very dangerous, very difficult, but we have a plan and we’ve had meetings where the Russians and the Americans have helped a lot in designing this plan that we hope can yield results in having supplies reaching the people inside the area. But it has to be done across front line operation, when it will happen, I don’t know, Insha Allah very soon.
Question: What you have said goes against the sense of normality that the Syrian government tries to inspire outside, so why this is happening? What are the reasons behind hostilities are regaining (inaudible) and if you could tell us how many people since this new wave of violence is now outside of the reach of the UN, of humanitarian aid?
JE: The number of people in, sort of, besieged areas is between 400,000 and 500,000 now, so it is about half the number that was there when we started, it was closer to a million earlier. The people living in hard to reach areas are 2.9 million now, compared to around 4.5 million earlier, One of the reasons that this number has decreased is that the Islamic State is controlling less territory, but also other areas are calm now or calmer now than before, including Aleppo city that we can reach. We can reach for the first time Deir ez-Zor city by land, before we could only reach it with high altitude air drops that were spectacularly successful in feeding people but spectacularly expensive as well.
I do not know if I am saying things that are very different from others, what I really try is to reflect the exact, and full and utter truth. We have now gone through the list of air raids, shelling, mortars, going from opposition side, and it is endless the number of places that people have been hit, the number of civilians that have been wounded, the internally displaced people who hoped to find to refuge and are now again in cross-fire.
This can change fast, but at the moment it is very bad and the worst, the epicenter is eastern Ghouta and there are 400,000 people there.
Question: Can you tell us since when is this? JE: Well it has been gradual since over the last weeks but really I would say, the last ten days have been really bad. All schools in eastern Ghouta are closed. I should say, all of the remaining schools for the 400,000 people, some 200,000 of those will be children, schools are closed, it was deemed as hopeless to do normal education in the fighting that was there. In Idlib I think I counted five places that had air raids, in southern Aleppo governorate a lot of places as well. And that comes in addition to all of the violence in Raqqa and in Deir ez-Zor, where one has been fighting Islamic State.
And here also a comment, and perhaps in general, I think we should remind all of those who are fighting so-called the designated terrorist groups, that there are very good civilians among the so-called terrorists. These civilians have exactly the same right of protection against indiscriminate attacks as any other civilians anywhere really. And the number of people who have had to flee in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor is so big that, you know, you wonder is this really warfare where one is sparing all civilians among designated terrorists as much as one can, I hope it is but it really begs the question.
Question: You just mentioned the designated terrorist groups the victories against the Islamic State and the recent victories, what impact did that have on the overall humanitarian situation, especially in albu Kamal today?
JE: Well, we are getting access to civilians, I mean because one has retaken areas held by Islamic State we humanitarians can operate, we can reach civilians, and people also can return when it is possible. But the cost has been tremendous, really. Again I repeat the question, was it really necessary to destroy the city to liberate it? Was it really necessary to displace everybody to free them? Maybe, but I think the question has to be asked, the cost has been tremendous both in Raqqa and now still in Deir ez-Zor area. But the positive side is now people can return and we can operate there. We were not allowed to operate by the ruthless Islamic State that held these territories.
Question: I want to ask about the 400 medical evacuation cases, could you please elaborate on their stage, are they in a very serious condition, what kind of treatment do they need and where are they now? Thanks
JE: The 400 are now in clinics, in basements, in makeshift hospitals, inside the eastern Ghouta, besieged towns and villages. They range from acutely malnourished children that are in some cases acutely malnourished because their mothers were so weak that they couldn’t breastfeed. To save their lives you have to have a therapeutic feeding, it is a real operation to do it, and they need to be evacuated. And there are severely wounded civilians, children, women, men.
What I really really cannot understand is that these people cannot be evacuated and that these children and women meet this bureaucratic wall of inaction, I cannot see, so what about a ceasefire now in this area and a greenlight to all medical evacuations and that is of course our appeal to both the government side and to the rebels that are throwing mortar, grenades the other way and into civilian areas into Damascus.
Question: The war to some extent, had fallen from the front pages because people think it is kind of over, could you just address that, tell us what you think of war is over to what extent?
JE: We are now in the 7th -8th year of war, it is fading, we were counting, you know, grenades, and looking at each and every single house and clinic being hit in Aleppo, we are not even close to that now with the eastern Ghouta and the other places. But the suffering is the same. I hope our humanity is not having a time expiry date, after seven years it is over. These people need our solidarity and our help and our diplomatic efforts until this war is over, hopefully we are going into the last war winter, but it is going to be war winter and it is going to be among the toughest, in some areas the toughest, I fear for this winter we are coming into and our appeal to the some 23 members of the Humanitarian Task Force, is lift it up now to the highest levels of government. This is a manmade disaster, it can end.
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