ALEPPO – It's been three months since the Syrian government launched its offensive on this city’s opposition neighborhoods, using barrels packed with explosives. After a two-week lull during harsh winter weather, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have reportedly resumed – and even increased the intensity – of the raids.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that more than 400 people have been killed in the country's largest city by these makeshift “barrel bombs” since the beginning of February, even as Geneva II peace talks were under way.
Most rebel-held areas in Aleppo have turned into a no-man’s land as residents flee; entire neighborhoods such as Maysar, Jazmati, Marjeh and Meisraniyeh are deserted, their shops shuttered. The exodus from the city is reportedly the largest since the Free Syrian Army first entered in July 2012.
It is not only heavy shelling that has pushed the residents to leave. Many residents are driven out by rumors that regime forces are planning to storm the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo.
Fears increased after a broad coalition of rebel groups began fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS); the former is losing ground this week in its fight against government troops.
Residents say that fighter jets are everywhere. They say schools, hospitals and car parks have been the main target, as the government claims they are the main places for congregations of armed groups.
As Syria’s once-efficient medical system collapses, Aleppo’s few field hospitals are overcrowded. The rudimentary medical points often administer little more than basic first aid. Civic groups have try to identify where help is most needed, as explosive barrels pound the city. They try to rescue those trapped under the rubble, using just simple tools at hand.
Abu Ahmad, 40, a resident of the Maysar neighborhood, has refused to flee. “Most of my neighbors and relatives have left, but I’d rather die here than flee and ask others for help. This is my home, and I’m not leaving.”
While Abu Ahmad’s son stayed behind with his father, his mother and other siblings fled to their relatives in the rural outskirts of the city. “I feel sad about the exodus from my neighborhood. What have we done to deserve this?” asked Abu Ahmad.
Since the December offensive began, many of Aleppo’s remaining families have scattered.
Most of the displaced have found themselves in the towns and cities of rural Aleppo, where the shelling is less intense than in the city. Other families have come to stay with their relatives in the suburbs. Those who left for the Turkish border crossing at Bab as-Salamah found themselves among an influx of newly displaced families, with many forced to go without tents, blankets and food.
Other families decided to move to the government-held western neighborhoods of Aleppo. They have set up tents inside buildings and in orchards, while others sit on the side of the road next to small fires trying to keep warm against the winter cold. The lucky families receive help from local charities housed in abandoned schools and university dormitories. Schooling has been replaced by the most basic survival.