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‘Why it is wrong to cherry pick news’

Feb 12,2014 - Last updated at Feb 12,2014

Good news from Syria is not news for many a quality Western newspaper. The splendid news that up to 600 women, children and mainly but not all elderly men were evacuated from the besieged insurgent-held old city of Homs on Sunday was either not reported or buried in stories carried by major Western papers.

The New York Times chose to bury it about two-thirds down in its story focusing on the opening on Monday in Geneva of the second round of peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition.

The Washington Post also put the good news at the centre of its story, leading with the acrimonious start of the second round due to the disruptions of the aid and evacuation convoys to old Homs.

The Guardian got around to mentioning the evacuees in the fifth paragraph from the end of its story on the talks. The Guardian did, eventually, carry a video of the chaotic scenes as Homs evacuees scrambled to leave the old city, where they had been besieged and/or trapped for a year without adequate food, water and medicine.

The agencies carried the story so there was no excuse for burying this grand news story.

Grand, particularly, because evacuees and rescuers braved shooting and shelling breaches of the ceasefire to guide people out of the old city.

Al Jazeera carried images of the scramble Sunday evening. Desperate Syrians who managed to get to the gathering point jumped into white armoured UN four-wheel drive vehicles while others grasped bumpers or door handles or simply tagged along, walking, as the convoy moved slowly along the road out of the area.

The same thing happened on Monday. On Tuesday, the operation was suspended while organisers worked out how to reach an estimated 500-800 people in five different locations, but yesterday the operation resumed.

UNICEF reported on Tuesday that at least 500 children and 20 pregnant women had been among the evacuees. The agency estimated that there had been more than 1,000 children caught in the old city among the 2,500 civilians said to be there.

Instead of applauding the operation and heroism of rescuers and rescued, the warring sides blamed each other for the violence, and the deaths and woundings of victims by those who broke the ceasefire.

While the ceasefire was proposed as a confidence-building gesture by UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, the operation generated hostility and blame gaming.

Accused of starving besieged civilians, Damascus clearly wanted to portray Homs as a humanitarian triumph.

Insurgents in Homs sought to ensure the deliveries of supplies to keep civilians in the old city while minimising the scope of the evacuation.

Before it started, they declared that only 200 of the 500 women, children and elderly men wanted to leave and take refuge in a nearby government-controlled quarter.

On Friday, 83 departed, on Sunday and Monday more than 1,000, including 336 men of military age who braved arrest by the authorities to get out of the devastated area.

The rush to escape showed that civilians were being held against their will as human shields by the estimated 700 insurgents in the old city.

The authorities detained for interrogation the 336 men at a school monitored by UN staff, freed 111, prepared to charge 34, and retained the rest for questioning.

The expatriate opposition National Coalition went along with the insurgents on this issue, while Khaled Erksoussi, operations chief of the Red Crescent, expressed a preference for delivering supplies over mass evacuations since taking the people out of cities, towns and villages renders them homeless.

The Homs ceasefire example shows just how difficult the negotiations will be and just how impossible it is to get straight reporting by some respectable newspapers that aligned themselves with the revolt and opposition.

Unfortunately, the flight of civilians from the old city could prompt insurgent groups besieged by the army to resist ceasefires that involve evacuations and permit only temporary truces that enable the UN and Red Crescent to deliver food and medical supplies that will sustain civilians who remain in insurgent-held areas.

Once civilians leave, insurgents can be exposed to full-scale army action. This has happened in Daraya, southwest of Damascus, and Al Qusair, near the Lebanese border.

The other good news story ignored by the Western media has been the delivery by UNRWA of 6,500 food packages — providing for a family of 5-8 persons for 10 days — to the 18,000 Palestinians and others in the Yarmouk district south of Damascus.

This was picked up by few papers among the many that I read every day, although the deliveries went on from January 18 until last Saturday, when there was, as in Homs, firing.

A great deal of publicity was given to the situation before UNRWA gained access to the area, when 85 to 100 people were said to have died from starvation due to the siege and blockade mounted by the Syrian army.

There is a second good news story from Yarmouk: the phased withdrawal of Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Nusra fighters from the area.

The long-delayed deal, negotiated by the pro-government Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, provides for Palestinian fighters to replace Jabhat guerrillas.

Fatah Al Intifada, also close to the Syrian authorities, appears to have played a key role on the ground. The commander of this faction, Abu Ayad Zahreh, has apparently given an ultimatum to armed groups in the camp to surrender their weapons and prepare to move to specific locations. Iran, reportedly, played a part in reaching the agreement.

Explosive experts entered the area to clear mines and ordnance in preparation for the return of residents, most of whom fled on December 17, 2012, when the Jabhat and other armed anti-government factions entered the Palestinian “camp” that became an urban neighbourhood.

According to the deal, which also involved Hamas representatives, UNRWA will resume deliveries of food and other aid, and reconstruction will begin.

Homs and Yarmouk demonstrate why it is wrong to “cherry pick” the news.

People who do this are in for a surprise when things do not turn out the way they expected.

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