Author: Anne Barnard
Posted: 4 November 2016
A Syrian soldier on Friday in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Syria and Russia said Friday was the last chance for people to escape before an all-out assault. Credit George Ourfalian/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
ALEPPO, Syria — The government-held side of Aleppo looks halfway normal: bustling with restaurants, parks, hotel swimming pools and commuters. President Bashar al-Assad’s main pitch to his people is that they are safer in the territory he controls, a far cry from the bombs and hunger on the rebels’ half of the storied and strategic city.
This is what the government wanted international journalists to see when it invited a group into the country this week after years of keeping most out. But when I stepped off the bus, I found a war zone.
The thump of outgoing artillery fire sounded throughout Thursday morning, and the crack of incoming shells was increasing. Paramedics whisked groaning men in camouflage jackets from ambulances outside Al Razi hospital, where a 14-year-old boy wept quietly. His mother had just been killed when a mortar shell hit their house; his father had died in an attack the day before.
Dr. Mazen Rahmoun, a city health official in a neat brown suit, moved gingerly through the chaos with the preternaturally calm stare of a man long ago traumatized into numbness. He and his colleagues had tallied 137 civilians killed in the past month, and now his own neighborhood, New Aleppo, was under fire as insurgents battled government forces on the edge of the city.
“My wife and family are hiding in the bathroom,” he said.
Even as Syria and Russia threatened an all-out assault on the rebel side of Aleppo, saying Friday was the last chance for people there to exit, they had been unable to put down a counteroffensive by a mix of Qaeda-linked and United States-backed insurgent groups.
Three Qaeda-linked suicide bombers attacked a military position with explosive-packed personnel carriers on Thursday, military officials said, and mortar fire was raining on neighborhoods that until now had been relatively safe. It was among the most intense rounds in four years of rebel shelling that officials say has killed 11,000 civilians.
There was no immediate way to verify their figures, especially since I was stranded inside a government-controlled bubble, the only way international journalists can safely report on Syria.
Facts have become increasingly difficult to verify over more than five years of this bloody and chaotic war. Kidnapping threats from extremist factions, as well as government airstrikes, have made insurgent-held areas too dangerous to venture into. And the government tightly controls access to its areas and closely monitors our movements on the rarely approved trips.
But one thing is clear: Nearly every Aleppo resident I have talked to in years of covering the war — those still here and those who have fled; those who support Mr. Assad, those who oppose him and those in between — knows someone in the government districts who has been killed by a random shell.
Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, has an estimated 1.5 million residents on the government side, including thousands who have fled from the east, where the United Nations says about 275,000 are trapped by government forces, suffering shortages of food and water along with indiscriminate bombing.
This is my first visit since 2001, when I wandered around the bustling old souks, which date from medieval times; visited the ancient citadel that towers at Aleppo’s heart; and admired the gleaming uniformity of cream-colored stone-clad buildings in the wealthier districts that turn pink at sunset.
Now, the citadel has been returned to its original purpose as a military stronghold, with government troops perched behind its crenelated walls. Much of the old market, whose narrow passageways became a hide-out for rebels, lies burned and bombed.
I rode in from Damascus with a dozen other journalists on Wednesday. We made the final approach to Aleppo through a narrow, winding government-controlled corridor, crawling behind delivery trucks and minivans. The bus wound through earthen berms and collapsed buildings, then through a choke point that has changed hands several times. Shells kicked up dust and smoke in the distance.
Then, suddenly, we were in a seemingly functional city. The green buses that have been used to evacuate civilians and rebels from besieged areas were packed with commuters. Taxis knotted up at roundabouts decorated with fountains and newly installed solar panels. Residents are far better off than they were in 2014, when it was rebels who had besieged the government side.
But a closer look revealed small signs of war: Water distribution centers, with tanks filled by wells to supplement shortages. Generators rumbling on sidewalks, to mitigate power cuts that leave the streets pitch-dark at night. And, a few doors down from our hotel, a top-floor apartment smashed by a recent shell.
We asked for rooms facing west, away from the bulk of shelling, a war correspondent’s reflex. From a high window, we could see a dark plume of smoke, silhouetted against the sunset, rising over the southwestern neighborhoods, where rebels were trying to advance. Only the next morning did we realize that the eastern face of the hotel was checkered with boarded-up windows from years of shelling.
My long absence from Aleppo meant I had missed a whole stage of its development: the restoration and gentrification of parts of the old city, the opening of boutique hotels, the flood of Turkish imports and foreign investment into what was Syria’s industrial and commercial hub.
That development push, in the first decade after Mr. Assad took over from his father in 2000, liberalized parts of Syria’s economy and energized the tourism industry. But it also disproportionately benefited Mr. Assad’s inner circle and the rich, fueling imbalances of wealth that helped spur the protests in 2011 that led to a security crackdown and civil war.
We had arrived at a critical moment, as Russia said there was only one day left to pass through a corridor it had provided for people to escape eastern Aleppo before the rebel side was flattened, a corridor through which precious few had passed.
The government says rebels are preventing civilians from leaving. Rebels refuse any evacuation without international supervision and a broader deal to deliver humanitarian aid.
Instead, they are trying to break the siege, with Qaeda-linked groups and those backed by the United States working together — the opposite of what Russia has demanded.
So anxiety was running high on both sides of Aleppo, with people in the west fleeing shelling and people in the east fearing airstrikes more devastating than any they had faced.
This visit has been even more tightly orchestrated than usual. Journalists are always required to move around with a government-approved minder. This time, a dozen uniformed soldiers and several Ministry of Information employees have kept us to a tight schedule of planned stops, and refused to let us even walk briefly around the streets without an escort.
On Thursday morning, we passed rows of small kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks and other goods. Some kiosks were painted with the Syrian flag; a few were roofed with tarps from the United Nations refugee agency. Families of fallen soldiers and merchants displaced from the old market are granted permits to operate the kiosks as a kind of compensation from a cash-strapped government.
A group of factory owners met us at the chamber of commerce, where a picture of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is used as a doormat. They blame him for backing rebel groups that looted factories and sent their machinery to Turkey.
We toured the Layramoon industrial district, recaptured from rebels over the summer. Buildings lay pancaked by airstrikes, and stripped of their marble cladding and copper wiring by looters. Soldiers led us down a crumbling staircase to windowless underground rooms that they said had been used as prisons by a rebel group called Division 16.
Next stop was a part of the old souk recaptured early in the war, now plastered with posters of Mr. Assad, his father and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite Lebanese militia that has provided crucial assistance to government forces.
We climbed over piles of rubble to reach the Mameluke-era Khan al-Wazir, its vaulted ceilings and cubbylike shops burned and blackened with soot. We peered over a barricade at the walls of the citadel and the pile of rubble that was once the Carlton Hotel, destroyed by rebels with a massive tunnel bomb.
“Moderate rebels” was a sarcastic refrain we heard often, making fun of the Obama administration’s description of groups it backs; the Syrian government calls them terrorists.
At Al Razi hospital, where Ahmed Noor Battal, the newly orphaned 14-year-old, was weeping, we arrived to panic and chaos. One woman wailed and collapsed in the arms of a nurse, who struggled to keep his bloodstained hands off the back of her white sweater.
“Don’t tell me he died! Don’t!” she shrieked. “I only have this one son.”
“He will survive,” the nurse said, but his eyes said something different. Minutes later, the son, Hazem Sherif, 26, a doctor, lay dead on a stretcher.
Outside, Itidal Shehadeh sat slumped on the sidewalk near the morgue, whimpering. Her husband, Mohammad Ayman Shehadeh, a security guard at the transportation department, had been hit by a shell while parking his car.
“I saw my father dying from the balcony,” said his son Adel, 13, crying and trembling. “I saw the mortar landing and smoke coming from my father’s car.”
Another relative shouted at the soldiers, demanding that the army take tougher action. He had been displaced by rebels three times, he said, adding, “It’s time to end it.”
But the next morning, the corridors set aside for people to leave eastern Aleppo were empty and silent. Soldiers there said they did not expect the evacuation deal to work.
“It should be finished by bombing,” one said.
At one crossing point, Syrian soldiers, and a few Russians, waited at a checkpoint decorated with posters of Mr. Assad. Judges stood by to determine whether evacuees were wanted by security forces.
Two shells landed, one less than 100 meters away. Soldiers blamed rebels trying to stop the evacuation; rebel groups denied it. At any rate, the crossing was closed. A senior military official said simply, “It’s over.” Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/05/world/middleeast/aleppo-syria.html?ref=middleeast