Aleppo residents must be allowed to flee Syria

 22 Dec 2016 - 13:14

Dr Méguerditch Tarazian

The last time Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) managed to get a medical aid convoy through to hospitals it supports in eastern Aleppo was back in August.

Since then, the town has endured a never-ending siege and the only information MSF teams have had regarding the reality of the lives of Syrian medical personnel has been by Skype or telephone.

Doctors have been telling us for months about shortages and the challenges of treating casualties against a backdrop of intensive bombings. The past few days, they have been describing how terrified they are about the fate that awaits them, their fear of reprisals for providing medical care in the rebel-held zone and how they want to be evacuated.

In the final throes of the battle to retake Aleppo — no matter what the cost —, we must continue to demand that the different parties to the conflict allow civilians to flee without risking their lives, something they have consistently refused to agree to.

Since September, the rebels have rejected this option several times, with some armed groups going so far as to prohibit civilians from using corridors opened by the government of Syria and its allies.

They finally consented on Tuesday, and so did the Syrian government after some hesitation. As the evacuation of civilians finally got underway, MSF teams are positioned in Atimah, in Idlib governorate, 35 kilometers away from Al Atareb in Aleppo governorate and are ready to help the displaced with 45 tons of medical supplies—mainly drugs, consumables and medical equipment—and non-food items.

We must continue to demand that the people of eastern Aleppo be allowed to evacuate while hoping that the emotion stirred up by the media in reaction to the deluge of bombs prevails on the Syrian and its allies to be less intransigent regarding the plight of civilians.

But we must not forget that the extreme violence of the retaking of the town is a sad reflection of what is happening in neighbouring Idlib province where hundreds of thousands of displaced people are now trapped.

The inhabitants of Idlib are also subjected to a sustained aerial bombing campaign and doctors in the hospital network that MSF supports in the region have reported 54 attacks on health workers and medical facilities since June 2016.

Health services in the opposition-held zone have been the target of loyalist troops since the conflict began in 2011 and, under Syrian counterterrorist laws passed in 2012, providing medical care to a casualty in opposition-held zones such as Idlib can be penalized as material support to terrorism.

Given the enormous challenges clandestine health services have faced in attempting to respond to the needs of countless war-wounded and people suffering from chronic illness (the main cause of death before the war), MSF was itself forced to go underground in order to provide assistance to the people of Syria. The Damascus government has never authorised our organisation to operate in Syria.

Added to these limits is the conflict situation in fragmented Idlib province that is controlled by various armed groups, some of whom target relief organisations with abductions, arbitrary arrests and restrictions. It is therefore very hard for MSF or any humanitarian actors to provide the inhabitants of Idlib with the level of assistance they require.

It is to Idlib province that the last remaining civilians Aleppo are supposed to be evacuated, but it is not a safe haven for the displaced, many of whom who would like to be able to flee via Turkey. But with the border hermetically sealed to Syrians seeking to flee, they are condemned to all-out war.

The rights of an individual to flee a war zone—in Aleppo, Idlib, or anywhere else—must be recognised and safe passage provided to those who want to leave.
    
The writer is the President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in France. While still in medical school, he worked as a translator for MSF in Nagorno-Karabakh, and from 1999-2002, he worked as an MSF field doctor in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2003, he became an emergency coordinator for MSF projects in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Pakistan, Central African Republic, Jordan, as well as other countries. From 2007 until being elected President, he served first as Deputy and then as Director of MSF’s Emergency Programming at MSF in France.