Aleppo, Asharq Al-Awsat—There were so many things that felt wrong on the road into Aleppo. We sped along the highway, swerving to avoid the potholes and then swerving again to avoid the oncoming cars, past the scorched date palms and the vehicle carcasses that were a reminder of what might happen if you didn’t go fast enough, or if it was just your unlucky day. Past the underfed cats that picked through the rubble of apartment blocks that had had their facades blasted off and now spilled their innards onto the streets, showing patches of gaudy wallpaper and the remnants of tea sets and furniture. Past the street stalls that had been blasted into bizarre twisted skeletons, and past the piles of garbage that smoldered in the weak afternoon sunshine. But when, finally, we spotted a few scattered groups of people on the streets, that was the most disturbing sight of all. All of them tilted their heads upwards and shielded their eyes from the glare of the sun, helplessly watching the path of the helicopters and the fluffy trails of the MiG jets tracing across the sky.
Foreign journalists and opposition activists have been unable to enter Aleppo since last autumn due to a campaign of kidnapping and intimidation by a hardline Al-Qaeda-inspired group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But in recent weeks the group has been pushed out of the city and the area of countryside that stretches west to the Turkish border by a new rebel alliance called the Islamic Front. We were among the first journalists to re-enter Aleppo.The people who had been terrorizing the city have gone, but there is barely a city left to terrorize any more. Since December, President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have littered the city with barrel bombs—crude incendiaries filled with TNT and shrapnel. They fall daily and indiscriminately from the helicopters that hover above the city on civilian areas held by the rebels. Most of the people have now fled Aleppo, and many of those who have stayed have moved to the neighborhoods nearest the frontlines. Those districts have now, ironically, become the safest places in the city, because the barrel bombs are so inaccurate that the frontline areas are rarely targeted for fear that one should land on the regime-held side.
At the height of the bombardment, as representatives from Assad’s regime attended the Geneva II peace talks, around 30 barrel bombs were dropping on Aleppo every single day. “If one falls on an area that has one- or two-story buildings, it will destroy the whole street. If the buildings are high, eight floors for example, it can destroy two buildings, completely,” said Khaled Hajou. He is one of thirty volunteers in the city’s Civilian Defense Team, the only people in Aleppo on hand to attend the scenes of the bombings and dig the wounded out of the rubble.
The sum of their meager equipment fits onto a sofa. The team has no heavy diggers, and no communications equipment. When the bombs fall they have to find their way to the scene by following the sound and the column of smoke, and once they get there they have to dig with their hands. It can take up to a week just to search through the rubble of a single building. “There are a lot of people who are just missing. We have never been able to find them,” said Khaled.
As the city has emptied out the bombing has become less frequent, but up to 20 barrel bombs a day are still being dropped on Aleppo. Meanwhile, the jet attacks and shelling that have haunted the embattled residents of this city for the past 18 months are continuing unabated.
The people who have stayed in the rebel-controlled areas of the city are the very poorest: the people who have no money to get out and no other places to go. The Aleppo Local Council estimates that around 20,000 families have lost their homes since the start of the barrel-bombing campaign. Some have escaped to regime-held areas of the city, but it is thought that around 7,500 families are still living under bombardment in the rebel-held districts. “They are completely poor,” a volunteer at a clothing handout told us. “We have around 500 families coming here every day to get new clothes. Most of them escaped from their homes without anything, just the clothes they were wearing.”
Um Mustafa, a mother of three who is living in the Fakdous neighborhood, explained why her family had stayed. “There are no other places to go to,” she said. “All the schools were closed two months ago because the regime started targeting them. The electricity is off and we can’t afford fuel for the generators.”At the Bustan Al-Qasr crossing point, once a busy marketplace and the only place where families could cross between the rebel- and regime-held sides of the city, the street is deserted and echoing. The rebels controlling the area stopped letting people over the crossing point one month ago. “We banned people from crossing because of the snipers,” said Abu Yakoub, an 18-year-old rebel who works at a medical point near the crossing. “The regime allows people to cross here, but when they do they target them directly.” Just a few hours before we visited, a mother had ignored the rebels and tried to cross Bustan Al-Qasr with her young child. She was shot in her hip and her hand.
Food is still reaching the rebel-controlled areas of the city from the countryside to the west of the city, but medicines are in short supply. “There is nothing here, in the field hospitals or the pharmacies,” Abu Yakoub told us. “A lot of patients who need special medicines or treatments try to cross to the regime areas. But then the snipers shoot at them, and they have to come back.” The only way to cross between the two sides of this divided city is to take a bus that takes a nearby route, but it costs 2,000 pounds (around 14 US dollars) each way, making it far too expensive for most of the people here to use.
Although the frontlines in the dense residential neighborhoods in the center of the city have barely moved, Assad’s forces have retaken the Norkareen neighborhood and pushed into Sheikh Najjar, the vast industrial district on the northern outskirts of the city. That has left the rebels almost entirely encircled, with just two roads into the city—one from the west towards the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing and one to the north towards Bab As-Salaam—still under their control.
The regime forces are shelling the road daily, making the route into and out of the city deadly. Doctors at one of the city’s field clinics told us that they have no option but to move the most seriously injured patients out into Turkey, but that their ambulances often come under attack on the way. “It is not easy to get them to the border, the streets are not safe,” said one. “The road into Aleppo is always being targeted by the jet fighters.”
The city’s doctors say they have no exact figures on the number of people who have been killed and injured by barrel bombs in Aleppo over the past four months. “We have no documentation, and many people have died in the streets without coming to hospital,” one doctor told us. A recent report by Human Rights Watch estimated that 2,321 civilians have been killed in the campaign, but taking into account the people who are still missing, that figure is likely to be much higher.
Those who have escaped the city have found that most of the refugee camps that line the Turkish border are full to capacity. In Marea, a village close to Tel Rifat on the road that runs between Aleppo and the Bab As-Salaam crossing, more than a thousand people are living in a hastily constructed camp that has been funded by the local relief council and private donors. “I won’t go back to Aleppo; I have lost two children already and I won’t lose any more,” said Nesrin, a young mother of four. She said she was struggling to keep her children clean and her husband was finding it impossible to get work, but she could not foresee them moving anywhere else in the near future. There are just four bathrooms in the camp and no electricity, and the local volunteers working there told us they fear diseases could spread as the summer approaches.
Many of the people Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to in Aleppo expressed anger, not only towards the regime but also towards the Syrian National Coalition’s humanitarian wing, the Aid Co-ordination Unit, and the international aid organizations for failing to send assistance to those affected by the bombing. While the large NGOs pour money and manpower into the camps along the border, few are willing to enter into the country to help the people who are still trapped inside. The daunting task of dealing with Aleppo’s huge and continuing humanitarian crisis has largely been left to private donors and local volunteers.
“Nobody is supporting the people who are working inside Syria, they only support the people who are working in Turkey,” said Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Aleppo Local Council. “We need medicines, and equipment for the Civil Defense Team and to clean the streets, especially with the summer coming.”