Almost 25,000 civilians have fled the nightmare of eastern Aleppo since Saturday, November 26. Under a hail of indiscriminate shelling, thousands have left the rebel-held east to cross into government-controlled areas. But fearing regime reprisals, others have opted to stay put in the city’s eastern neighbourhoods, despite the growing threat of death.
There's only one way out of eastern Aleppo that leads to the western part of the city which is controlled by the regime. While many have decided to risk the journey and potential attacks by the regime, thousands of others have decided to stay put in the rebel-held east, as both aerial bombing and ground combat intensify.
Our Observer is one of them. He says he’s being hunted by the regime, and would fear for his life if he crossed into government-held territory. His account is patchy at times, given the difficulty of setting up a secure means of communication with those stranded in eastern Aleppo.
“If you’re a man and you leave eastern Aleppo, at best you’ll be forced to be fight for the Syrian army... at worst you’ll be summarily executed”
I fled my house on Saturday as the fighting was getting closer. I knew that sooner or later our lives would be in danger. We had no other choice but to leave. We gathered up a few belongings and headed to another neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo. Of course, it hasn’t been spared by aerial bombing, but it’s still held by rebel forces. As for as I know, very few people have tried crossing into government-held territory. Those who leave pay a heavy price. Eastern Aleppo is completely surrounded. There’s only one way out – and it’s controlled by regime forces. If you’re a man, you’re forced to undergo a lengthy interrogation and could end up – at best – being forced to fight for the Syrian army. For many, such a scenario would be unthinkable.Residents of eastern Aleppo try to cross into government-held territory. Official source."The regime accuses us of supporting the insurgency because we’re medical personnel”
I know that the Syrian regime is looking for me because I’m medical staff. The regime is waging all-out war against doctors who out of duty treat everyone they can, no matter who they are. So they accuse us of supporting the insurgents [Editor’s note: the war on doctors in rebel-held territory has been documented by the NGO Physicians for Human Rights].
I also refused to go into areas controlled by Kurdish YPG forces because I heard that three of my friends were executed there.
As a result, we’ve taken shelter in another part of eastern Aleppo that’s still under rebel control. For the last three days I’ve been living in an apartment that’s was abandoned by its owners when the war broke out. My wife, children and I share it along with two other families that we didn’t know before. In all, 13 of us live in the small three-room apartment.
The local committee – elected by local residents – took the responsibility of housing families in vacant apartments. There isn’t any running water and only one or two hours of electricity per day. It’s impossible to warm the apartments, and it is freezing cold in the morning. We have to sleep covered in layers of blankets, of which we have plenty. But what we really lack is medicine, potatoes, vegetables, bread, meat and fuel, all because of the siege. [Editor’s note: Since the beginning of July, the United Nations has been unable to get aid into Aleppo. Food supplies are on the verge of running out. Jan Egeland, Special Advisor to the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, warns that ‘next week there’ll be nothing left’].Residents of rebel-held eastern Aleppo flee towards government lines (Source: Aleppo Media Centre)
“There are 13 of us living in a small three-bedroom apartment, without water or medicine. But that hasn’t diminished the solidarity amongst us”
There is a lot of solidarity here. Take me as an example. I work and earn around 350 dollars per month. A kilogram of meat costs 100 dollars. So every two months I can afford to get myself a kilo. And I always share it with those who need it the most. But those moments when we can afford to eat meat are rare. On a normal day we eat rice and pasta. A kilo of rice costs around 3 dollars. It’s far more affordable. But we can’t go on much longer. The siege is suffocating us and the constant bombardments are terrifying. It’s worse for the children, who can’t get used to it. There aren’t enough basements for everyone to hide in, so when we hear planes flying above us, we hold our breath.
I see no way out. There needs to be negotiations between the rebel forces and the Syrian army under the authority of the United Nations, so that we can leave safely.
“I fear for my life. War is everywhere”
But I doubt that will happen. I fear for my life. I said goodbye to my house when I left it. It’s a good thing I left, because residents still living in the area told me that foreign fighters are now occupying it. That was bound to happen. They knew who I was and were looking for me. I hope that those who ran the risk of staying put – especially the elderly – won’t fall victim to the violence. I was unable to verify this myself, but I heard that a woman had been raped by a member of this militia, in front of her husband. War is everywhere. It attacks our body and our mind.”
In Ankara, Turkish authorities are presiding over secret talks between Syrian rebels and Russia, in order to draft a new plan based on a previous one by Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy for Syria. But the chances of it succeeding are slim.
Close to 270,000 people still live in eastern Aleppo. Since November 15, the Syrian government and its allies have carried out an unprecedented assault on the entire area. Iraqi Shiite militias along with Hezbollah militants have been providing ground support, while Russian warplanes have rained down death and destruction from above. The regime is determined to wrestle back control of eastern Aleppo, where an estimated 8,000 rebels, of whom 900 are jihadists, are continuing to resist.
Syrian media have been broadcasting footage showing thousands of civilians queuing up outside the only way out of the eastern part of the city, in order to cross over into government-held parts of Aleppo.