Flee­ing the fight­ing, Syr­i­ans de­scribe ter­ri­fy­ing choices

Civilians fear bombs in rebel en­clave, ar­rest if they flee

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

As Syr­ian govern­ment forces ad­vanced into Aleppo’s rebel-held Al-Sakhour dis­trict, Hasan al-Ali said he faced the choice of stay­ing put and be­ing caught by the army, or flee­ing into a shrink­ing rebel en­clave un­der re­lent­less bom­bard­ment. A fa­ther of three chil­dren, he opted for the lat­ter, though food, fuel, wa­ter and medicine are run­ning crit­i­cally low in rebel-held ar­eas, such is his fear of the Syr­ian govern­ment that in­sur­gents have been try­ing to un­seat for more than five years.

“I didn’t take any­thing with me. I took the kids, ran to my car, and left... We took the de­ci­sion at the fi­nal hour, be­cause the army could have swooped in at any mo­ment,” the 33-yearold said, speak­ing in eastern Aleppo. For Ali and thou­sands of others in the ar­eas that fell to the army in re­cent days, the dan­ger and de­pri­va­tion of east Aleppo seem a safer bet than the im­pris­on­ment or en­list­ment into the mil­i­tary that they fear if they moved to govern­ment ar­eas. But as some fled deeper into Aleppo’s re­main­ing rebel dis­tricts, others de­cided in­stead to risk a per­ilous cross­ing of the front lines into govern­ment-held parts of the city, see­ing it as a safer op­tion than stay­ing with the out­gunned rebels.

“I hope Syria will re­turn to the way it was, and peo­ple get back se­cu­rity and peace like be­fore,” said Abed al-Salam Ah­mad, who crossed to the govern­ment sec­tor with his wife and six daugh­ters af­ter their house was hit by a shell. The for­mer con­struc­tion worker said con­di­tions were so bad that even an­i­mals would not en­dure them, and that in­hab­i­tants were badly treated by east Aleppo’s rebels - some­thing the rebels deny. His family fled at dawn, brav­ing gun­fire as they crossed the front line. He spoke to Reuters TV at a dis­used cot­ton fac­tory in Aleppo’s Ji­breen area, one of two for­mer in­dus­trial fa­cil­i­ties opened by the govern­ment to re­ceive the dis­placed.

The diver­gent paths cho­sen by Ali and Ah­mad il­lus­trate the ter­ri­fy­ing choices that have faced civilians flee­ing one of the most fe­ro­cious bat­tles of the Syr­ian war, with Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad poised for his big­gest tri­umph of the con­flict so far. Both the rebels and the govern­ment have ac­cused each other of ma­nip­u­lat­ing Aleppo res­i­dents’ fears to their own ad­van­tage. The mil­i­tary say rebels spread false re­ports of govern­ment abuses to de­ter peo­ple from leav­ing rebel ar­eas. Rebels in turn say that peo­ple who speak of mis­treat­ment by in­sur­gents af­ter flee­ing their ter­ri­tory are act­ing out of fear of au­thor­i­ties.

Since the army swept through the north­ern part of the rebel en­clave a week ago, cap­tur­ing sev­eral large, pop­u­lous dis­tricts, at least 30,000 peo­ple have fled across the front lines from the rebel ar­eas, the UN’s re­lief co­or­di­na­tor OCHA said. Thou­sands of others - the numbers are more dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late be­cause in­ter­na­tional bod­ies are not present in rebel-held east Aleppo - re­treated fur­ther into the in­sur­gents’ sec­tor, in­clud­ing to the dense quar­ters of the Old City. OCHA es­ti­mates 5,000 had been dis­placed within eastern Aleppo. The UN en­voy for Syria said on Satur­day there may still be more than 100,000 peo­ple in rebel-held ar­eas. The Bri­tain­based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said it could be as many as 200,000.

For those re­main­ing in dis­tricts held by rebels, con­di­tions are wors­en­ing, ag­gra­vated by the short­age of ba­sic goods and the con­stant dan­ger of bom­bard­ment in civil­ian ar­eas and fight­ing near the quickly shift­ing front lines. “We had a lot of star­va­tion. They were giv­ing us ev­ery day or two days a bag of bread, so five loaves of pitta bread,” said a woman who gave the name of Um Ali, or ‘Ali’s mother’, who had fled to the govern­ment sec­tor from her home in Jeb AlQubba dis­trict.

Af­ter the army has fin­ished check­ing the iden­tity pa­pers of her and her family, she hopes they can move in with her brother in a west­ern dis­trict of Aleppo that is in govern­ment hands. Many of those who chose to re­main in rebel ar­eas be­lieve that checks of iden­tity pa­pers are a pre­lude to mass ar­rests, tor­ture and ex­tra­ju­di­cial killing, citing pre­vi­ous me­dia re­ports of such ac­tion - all dis­missed by Da­m­as­cus as fab­ri­cated. The Ob­ser­va­tory said on Wed­nes­day the govern­ment had de­tained hun­dreds of peo­ple. A Syr­ian mil­i­tary source de­nied that, and said that while iden­ti­ties were be­ing checked, no­body was be­ing ar­rested.

Khalil Hal­abi, 35, a phar­ma­cist from Al-Shaar dis­trict near the new front line, moved with his wife and chil­dren to the rebel-held Old City af­ter what he de­scribed as 11 days of es­ca­lat­ing bom­bard­ment. “The de­struc­tion is in­de­scrib­able - the limbs, burnt limbs. Build­ings col­lapsed and were burned down, mosques were de­stroyed com­pletely,” he said. “We lost a lot of peo­ple... through bar­rel bombs and rock­ets. Some of them died and some of them were per­ma­nently in­jured,” he said. Others from his dis­trict fled in the other di­rec­tion, seek­ing shel­ter in govern­ment ar­eas.

Es­cape

For the peo­ple Reuters spoke to in Aleppo, the de­ci­sion to leave home, even in the face of such de­pri­va­tion and af­ter a war that be­gan in Syria in 2011 and ar­rived in their city in 2012, came as a wrench. Mah­moud Zakaria Ran­nan, a tai­lor from the city’s Sheikh Na­j­jar neigh­bor­hood who has six chil­dren and owned a small shop, said his family fi­nally de­cided to leave af­ter he was wounded when their house was shelled. “I had been in my home for 40 years, was I go­ing to leave it in one day?” he said. The family went to the Sheikh Khudr dis­trict and then to the Old City. But as clashes con­tin­ued, they de­cided to join his brother in govern­ment-held Adamiya.

“We have kids, and I’m in­jured... so we had to walk very slowly,” he said. His jour­ney in­cluded a two-hour trek through the city start­ing at 4 am. “There was a big group with us. They even fired on us at the air­port high­way.” Some of those trapped inside the rebel sec­tor may still be hop­ing to es­cape through a deal be­tween rebels and the govern­ment, such as those that al­lowed thou­sands to leave Daraya near Da­m­as­cus for in­sur­gent-held Idlib af­ter years of siege. “I will go to an­other area, I’ll take my family and seek refuge in an­other area, a lib­er­ated area that doesn’t have the regime. I have no trust at all in the regime to stay in its ar­eas,” said Ali. — Reuters

HOMS: An op­po­si­tion fighter from the Sham brigade guards a position on the front line dur­ing clashes with govern­ment forces in the vil­lage of Teir Maalah in Syria’s cen­tral Homs prov­ince yes­ter­day. — AFP

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