HOMS, Syria (Reuters) - The men covered their faces as Syrian army soldiers used mobile phones to try to take their pictures, convinced these evacuees from the city of Homs were among the rebels they have been fighting there.
“That’s them, that’s them, the bastards,” one soldier was overheard telling another, raising his phone high for a better shot of the men getting off a bus that had ferried them and others from the besieged city.
“They should all be evacuated in body bags,” said another, before the city governor, overseeing implementation of a humanitarian ceasefire, told them to stop. “Put your phones down now. Put your phones down now,” he shouted over a megaphone.
The scene on Wednesday, the sixth day of a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, illustrates the fear and suspicion unleashed by the conflict that has torn Syria apart.
While women and children evacuated from the Old City of Homs have been allowed to leave freely, any male aged between 15 and 55 - fighting age in Syrian eyes - has been held for what the authorities describe as background checks.
As of Tuesday night, the United Nations put the number of such men at 336, 152 of whom it said had been released after being vetted. The total number of evacuees exceeds 1,000.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone on Wednesday, city governor Talal al-Barazi put the number of men of fighting age at 145. He said 111 had been released after the authorities were satisfied their hands were not “dirtied by blood”.
“The mistakes they had made were very simple,” he said.
But observing the evacuation, some of the soldiers assumed the worst about the disheveled men getting off the buses: that these were foreign fighters of the type the Syrian conflict has attracted in the thousands.
One plainclothes member of the security forces was overheard saying his role was to greet each of the evacuees to see if their accents betrayed foreign nationality.
A relief worker was surprised to see that the men had arrived with long beards akin to the type grown by Islamic militants. “We don’t have scissors. We don’t have anything,” one of them said, explaining why he hadn’t shaved.
Officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees are on hand at the site where the evacuees first arrive as well as at a school where men of military age are being taken for questioning, spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.
“We do collect data on men and boys. Our role is limited, especially our ability to follow-up on them once they leave,” Fleming told Reuters in Geneva. “We advocate with the government to ensure their safety and security.”
As a bus carrying evacuees arrived, Syrian Red Crescent workers formed a human corridor so they could walk unhindered to a building where they are searched before receiving a meal comprising a banana, an apple, a piece of meat pie, a croissant and two small packets of biscuits.
One man, hunched over and accompanied by a child, appeared so dazed that he wandered into the section where women were undergoing body searches. Like other evacuees, he appeared underweight and incapable of walking at a normal pace.
Another appeared badly wounded in the groin area, though it was not possible to say how he had been injured.
One of the youngest evacuees was a girl who looked about five years old. Holding her mother’s hand, she stared blankly at journalists when they asked questions.
The humanitarian ceasefire in Homs represents the only tangible result to date of Geneva peace talks aimed at ending a conflict that has killed 130,000 people and destroyed swathes of Syria’s cities.
Homs, a centre of protest when the 2011 uprising erupted against 40 years of Assad family rule, is one of the most heavily damaged of Syrian cities. It was one of the first places where street protests morphed into an armed revolt.
Aid workers came under fire early in this humanitarian operation. But a U.N. official at the scene said Wednesday’s operations had gone ahead without incident and both sides were adhering to their side of the ceasefire.
“It’s a good day,” said Yacoub el Hillo, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Syria, who had to take shelter in a basement while trying to deliver aid on Saturday.
The identity of the reporter in Homs has been withheld for security reasons; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alistair Lyon