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Behind Besieged Walls, UN Peacekeeper Sees War's Toll On Syrians


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. In Syria, the war torn city of Homs is relatively peaceful for the moment. Government and opposition forces agreed to a brief truce on Friday. The district known as the Old City has been under government siege for nearly two years and food and medicine there are dangerously scarce. Since Friday, the U.N. has been bringing in supplies while also bringing out civilians who want to leave.

Matthew Hollingworth is the Syria director for the U.N.'s World Food Program. We reached him in Homs and asked him how people have been surviving.

MATTHEW HOLLINGWORTH: They've been living off roots. They've been living off grass. They've been living off the very last vestige of supplies that they could scrape together in shops and markets that are now destroyed in their neighborhoods, anything they can get a hold of. We even heard from, today, a man who was telling me that he'd set snares to catch cats because otherwise, his kids wouldn't have any protein, you know, just horrific stories.

You know, the children that we've been bringing out, we placed a meal in front of them, they don't know what to do. They're just shocked because they have not seen that much food in months if not years.

BLOCK: Once you have gotten the people out of Homs and taken them to some part of the city or some part of the region where there's relative safety, what more can you do for them?

HOLLINGWORTH: Well, what we've done is to insure that everybody that does come out receives a family ration that will last them for a month. Other agencies, other U.N. agencies, we're working with as well provide them with nonfood items, with clothes, with cooking sets, with blankets, et cetera, so that they can set up a new life elsewhere, perhaps with relatives or in one of the shelters that we also support throughout the (unintelligible).

But it's certainly not going to be a great life. Look, I'm right now standing in a shelter where I can hear children laughing and playing. That's a big difference already from where they were yesterday.

BLOCK: Yeah, we can hear them, too. Does the mood seem to be lifted for them? Are they still shocked?

HOLLINGWORTH: I think there's a lot of shock, but again, you know, the children bounce back very quickly. They may not have as much energy as we would like them to have to play, but they certainly are starting to play and probably bounce back a lot faster than their parents and grandparents that are with them.

BLOCK: Mr. Hollingworth, we've been reporting over the past week on the men of fighting age who were allowed to leave Homs, but have now been detained by Syrian authorities and are being interrogated. And there are lots of questions about what happens to them. Have you been allowed to see them? Do you know anything about their condition or what will happen?

HOLLINGWORTH: I'm standing in the very center where they are currently staying for questions as part of what the government is calling the status regularization process where indeed they are questioned, but they're not being questioned in a police station. They're not being questioned in a prison. They're here in a shelter. Their families are with them in many instances.

We are here. The United Nations is here. The Syrian (unintelligible) is here. A local charity that supports this shelter is here. So yes, they are going through a process, but it's not a detainment in terms of a prison or a jail and as such, we are able to make sure that we are here all the time to provide people with support and to insure that we can verify how they are being treated.

BLOCK: Is there concern among the relief groups there that these men may be in peril, that something could happen to them that would be beyond your control?

HOLLINGWORTH: Certainly, you know, there is a lot of nervous faces when they first come out, but people are choosing to come out and they are aware of the agreement that opposition inside of Homs and the government have made and how it works. At the moment they are following the process that has been agreed by both sides, and yesterday, we've already seen more than 100 men go free to join their families throughout Syria and that's going to continue over the coming day.

BLOCK: Matthew Hollingworth, thanks for taking time to talk to us. We appreciate it.

HOLLINGWORTH: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: Matthew Hollingworth is the Syria director for the U.N.'s World Food Program. We reached him in the city of Homs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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