"How I escaped Aleppo on the 'highway of death'"
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After several weeks of fighting, the Syrian army has now succeeded in fully surrounding rebel-held neighbourhoods in the city of Aleppo. On July 7, pro-regime soldiers seized control of the Castello Road, in the city's northwest, the only road that had allowed the rebels to resupply or leave the city. Nevertheless, a few days later, our Observer managed to flee Aleppo on this "highway of death".
Since 2012, the city of Aleppo has been divided in two: to the west, an area controlled by the Syrian regime, and to the east, an area held by rebel factions. Embedded with the rebels, Alaa Aljaber, a local, covered the fighting for several international media outlets. But when it was announced that the Castello Road (so-named in honour of a local Italian restaurant) had been seized, he decided to flee, whatever the risk:
These last five months, the regime had been progressively reinforcing its positions on the Castello Road front. But on July 7, they managed to take up positions less than 500 metres from the road. From then on, any vehicle driving on the road was within firing range. A few days earlier, I'd been told by a rebel chief that the zone was going to be fully encircled soon. So I'd begun preparing to leave.
On July 11, I left with a neighbour in his car. His parents went with us, too. This neighbour of mine has been living with a leg injury for several years, and he wanted to get treatment in Turkey. Just like me, he wanted to get out before the jaws of the trap closed fully on this [rebel-controlled] part of the city. We crossed through the neighbourhood of Sakhour, then al-Shaar, the last one before the Castello Road.
A strange encounter with men in black
One kilometre from Castello, though, we were stopped at a checkpoint manned by three men dressed in black and wearing facemasks. One of them had a Kalashnikov and a knife. I was terrified at first when I saw them – I thought they were Islamic State fighters. One of the men asked for our identity cards. When he saw mine, he said, 'Ah, so you’re Alaa Aljaber!' I was surprised he recognised my name, because I work under a pseudonym. I told them I was taking my friend to Turkey to get treatment. At one point, I wondered if they might not be bandits. I thought about offering them money so that they would let us go, but then I reconsidered.
They made us get out of the car and led us into a shop. Then they took me to see their boss, who was also wearing a face mask. He questioned me for quite a while, and criticised me. He told me: 'Why do you reveal our secrets and give information to the Western media?' He tried to find out if I'd given out information about the positions of rebel fighters. I told him I was simply focused on denouncing the crimes of Bashar al-Assad. His buddies searched my camera, but they didn't find anything on it. Thankfully, I'd erased the content of my memory cards.
They locked us up in this store all night. But they gave us bread and bottles of water. My neighbour and his parents were terrified, and wouldn't let themselves close their eyes. I was calmer than they were, because I told myself that if they wanted to hurt us, they already would have. The next morning, they told me they were letting the others go, but said they'd have to go back to Aleppo. They didn't want to release me, though. They told me: "You, on the other hand, you're staying with us." With all the smooth talking I could muster, I was eventually able to convince them to let me go.
They themselves were getting read to head out on the road, and they offered to take me with them. Since my neighbours had left with their car, I was happy. I told them: "I'll come, with pleasure!"
We waited until 1pm to leave, because the regime fighters generally stop their mortar fire around then, because of the heat.
At the start, we avoided the main road and took a parallel street, but at a certain point we were forced to get back on the main road, for a distance of maybe 700 metres.
Corpses and burnt-out cars
And there, I saw horrific scenes – several corpses, the smell of which caught in your throat, and burnt-out cars. Because of the bombing, no ambulance can risk going out that way – because on this 'highway of death' a shell can target your vehicle at any moment. The trip took about 20 minutes. They were longest 20 minutes of my life.
The men in black dropped me at the first village after the Castello Road, called Kafr Hamrah. I stayed at the side of the road for quite a while, and then a car took me to Sarmada, near Idlib [in north-western Syria], near the Turkish border. From there, I got in touch with a smuggler who got me across the border with Turkey, along with a group of other Syrians who were fleeing the country.
I'm not planning to go back to Aleppo in the coming months. If the regime's siege on the rebel areas holds, it will be a real catastrophe for the 300,000 civilians still living there, because the Castello Road was the only way into the city for humanitarian aid.