An injured boy sits near a man as they warm themselves by a fire in East Aleppo, Syria November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail.

Escape from Aleppo, at last

NRC’s Secretary General, Jan Egeland|Published 22. Dec 2016

This week’s evacuations send a positive signal of what can be achieved around the negotiation table.

This article was first published by USA Today. Read it here.

I held my breath as each convoy carried Aleppo's remaining civilians to safety. Syria's war has taught me many bitter lessons. One of the hardest to stomach is that the parties controlling this conflict commit, spin and justify massacres as they unfold on our TV screens.

Earlier this week terrorists set ablaze six aid buses on their way to evacuate civilians from two other besieged towns, Foua and Kefraya. They temporarily halted all of the parallel evacuation operations. Aleppo lies at the bloodied heart of Syria's six-year savage conflict. The rules of war have been trampled on here like nowhere else.

But the evacuations pushed on regardless. More than 34,000 people were evacuated in all. Many had been sleeping on the streets in freezing temperatures waiting to be evacuated. We had to seize this moment.

Too many lives were depending on it.

The heart of Syria's largest city has been in crossfire for four harrowing years. Warring parties have too often prevented humanitarians from entering. Families trapped inside have been unable to escape.

The United Nations asked me in 2015 to chair a group member states, co-chaired by the US and Russia, that committed to help humanitarians gain access to Syrian civilians, including those in Aleppo. Time and again, we have been given guarantees by the warring parties and their international sponsors that humanitarians could deliver aid. Time and again, the government of any one party in the battlefield would reverse that decision. We would be powerless to save lives.

This is how Syria's game of war is played. Aid is used as a political bargaining chip. One side allows access, just for one of the others to prevent it with conditions the other side will refuse to accept. And so civilians continue to lose and suffer.

The consequences for innocent families have been disastrous. Medical operations have taken place in bombed out basements without anaesthesia. Children have bled to death, while we begged for evacuations to hospitals that would have saved their lives.

We are witnessing the worst war in our generation. The UN system set up to prevent massacres utterly failed Syria. We have all failed Syria.

Aleppo is not the only city in this brutal conflict. Some 700,000 people outside Aleppo are encircled in 15 other areas. The current evacuation agreement covers only four.

There is intense diplomatic activity within the international community and within the international Syria support group to reach all of the remaining blocked areas of the country. In November and December permits were given, but then access was prevented by bureaucrats, militias and those who hold the power strings of this war.

This has to change in 2017. I am hopeful that the UN Security Council resolution to allow the UN to monitor the most recent evacuations could mean more access for humanitarians to people desperately in need of our help elsewhere.

The men pointing the guns are responsible for terrible atrocities in this senseless war, but the men in suits sponsoring those who target civilians are equally liable. Too many foreign governments and organisations have brought fuel to this fire.

Men with guns and power have specialised in setting up military, political, bureaucratic and procedural roadblocks to prevent brave humanitarian workers saving civilian lives.

This war will finally be over only when all the international sponsors understand that instead of bringing fuel to the fire, they must push the parties on the ground to the negotiation table. Peace negotiations are now scheduled for February. This week's evacuations must be seen as a positive signal of what can be achieved around the negotiation table.

And 2017 should bring new hope for the peace process in Syria.


Jan Egeland is the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He also chairs the United Nations panel on humanitarian access in Syria. Follow him on Twitter at @NRC_Egeland.