World Politics

Call for international community – Aleppo civilians plead for help as airstrikes resume: ’Save us’ ’Tomorrow will be too late for many of us’


Wednesday 14 December 2016by KAREEM Bilal AbdulSHAHEEN Kareem

Call for international community to put a stop to fighting as evacuation of civilians from stricken city blocked by militias.

Desperate residents in the remaining pockets of rebel-held Aleppo reacted with mounting horror and anguish as shelling and airstrikes resumed in the Syrian city on Wednesday, hours after a ceasefire and evacuation deal offered them hope of escape.

Doctors and other civilians, who hours earlier had expressed cautious optimism that they would be able to leave east Aleppo, again implored the international community to put a stop to the fighting that had left their homes in ruins and allow them to seek a safe haven elsewhere.

Thousands of civilians are still trapped in a small enclave of east Aleppo, bereft of food, water and electricity and without any functioning hospitals.

A ceasefire agreed on Tuesday by Turkish intelligence and the Russian military was to have permitted evacuations to Idlib province to begin on Wednesday morning, but Turkish and rebel officials said the Iranian-backed militias who had spearheaded the Assad government’s assault on rebel-held Aleppo were not permitting civilians to leave. The Turkish Red Crescent said nearly 1,000 people were being held at a militia checkpoint.

Residents said shells had fallen on the road on which the evacuations were supposed to take place.

“Save us, people. Save us, people, world, anyone who has even a bit of humanity,” said one doctor in a voice message from a besieged district. “We beg you, we beg you, the dead and wounded are in the streets and people’s homes have collapsed on top of them. Save us. Save us.”

Another resident said: “We want to leave. We don’t want more massacres, let us leave. What is happening?”

Civilians left in rebel-held Aleppo have been posting farewell messages on social media as Iranian-backed militias and forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad rampage through newly reclaimed neighbourhoods in what the UN described as a “meltdown of humanity”.

Many civilians predicted they would either die once the regime’s forces reached their homes, or would be detained and tortured if they gave themselves up to them.

The UN reported that the Iranian-backed militias leading the assault, including the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, had carried out at least 82 extrajudicial killings, including of women and children who were living in opposition-controlled areas. Reports of detentions and forced recruitment into the Syrian army have also proliferated in recent days as the regime advanced through Aleppo.

It was unclear on Wednesday when residents would be allowed to leave east Aleppo and whether the evacuation deal would hold. No residents have been evacuated so far.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said shuttle diplomacy with Russia and Iran was continuing to keep the deal on track. The agreement to allow civilians and opposition fighters to leave was confirmed by both Russia and the Assad regime on Tuesday evening, but Turkish and rebel officials said the Iranian-backed militias, who were not involved in the negotiations, had blocked the evacuations.

The Syrian president told Russia Today in an interview aired on Wednesday that western powers were seeking a ceasefire in Aleppo to stop the regime advance and save “the terrorists”.

The evacuation of rebel-held Aleppo would, however, mean the opposition would cede the city, the last major urban stronghold where it maintained an active presence.

Residents said the bombardment on Wednesday, with artillery and airstrikes as well as alleged use of cluster bombs, had resumed at a pace greater even than before the ceasefire deal.

“This is an urgent distress call,” said another doctor who on Tuesday night had told the Guardian he was saddened to leave Aleppo but happy that civilians would survive.

“Save the besieged districts of Aleppo. Since the early morning, the shelling has targeted all the besieged neighborhoods with all types of weaponry. The dead are in the street, and so are the wounded, and there are no ambulances. Save Aleppo. An urgent distress call to every free person in the world.”

Another nurse, whose father and brother were killed on the same day earlier in the regime’s offensive, pleaded that civilians be spared. “A lot of shells and bombs are falling on us, no one can walk in the streets,” he said in a voice message. “Hundreds of shells and rockets. Please let us stay alive. Please pressure the regime to keep us safe. Please, from Aleppo, the last call.”

He added: “The medical situation is so bad. No ambulances, no cars, it’s a very horrible situation in our neighbourhoods. Please let our scream arrive to the whole world.”

Weeks of immense suffering and violence in east Aleppo since the Syrian regime and allies began a final push into territory that had been in rebel hands since 2012 have left residents in total despair and increasingly angry at the international community for abandoning them to their fate.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the security council late on Tuesday that the Syrian government, along with Russia and Iran, bore responsibility for the deaths of civilians in Aleppo. She accused the three states of putting a “noose” around civilians in the city, asking: “Are you incapable of shame? … Is there no execution of a child that gets under your skin? Is there literally nothing that shames you?”

Iranian leaders were congratulating themselves on Wednesday for the role they had played in the assault. The chief military adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saidAleppo had been “liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah”.

Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul

* The Guardian. Wednesday 14 December 2016 15.22 GMT:

Message from Aleppo: ’Tomorrow will be too late for us’

Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem describes a “desperate situation” and calls for the creation of a humanitarian corridor.

East Aleppo, Syria - We are all praying for rain. When it rains, the planes can’t fly and the bombardment stops for a short while.

We are hoping that it rains long enough for the powers of the world to do something to help the 150,000 civilians stuck in this small neighbourhood in Aleppo escape the carnage.

The situation here is desperate.

People seeking refuge are flooding into the area, cramming into about 10sq km. There are many babies and children here too.

People come with three or four children in tow, fleeing the government forces. They use their pushchairs to carry children, and whatever other belongings they can - some clothes, a few cooking utensils in plastic bags, essentials.

I chose to come to Aleppo several weeks ago. I thought I’d be here with my two-person crew for a few days. I didn’t intend to be here this long. But I knew that coming here at all could be risky.

Reporting from conflict zones is dangerous, but getting the truth to the world is important. Most of the other people here, however, had no choice. They are just caught up in this nightmare against their will.

It is extremely cold. The place where I am staying has no proper walls - I have hung plastic sheets and a blanket in the large holes made by a recent air strike.

The big-hearted Syrian people treat me - a journalist and the only black American in town - generously. They know I can communicate their stories to the world only when they allow me to charge my phone and laptop in one of the few remaining places with a generator and fuel.

The price of the little food that is left is not too high, as people don’t want to take advantage of each other, but there is not much to sell, and everyone is suffering.

In order to cook, people take broken bits of furniture, a brick and a few stones, place their pot on top of it and then light a fire.

The menu is limited: bread, dates, and bulgur wheat, referred to here as “poor man’s rice”. Some charities stockpiled the bulgur but there is not nearly enough. Most people have no access to fresh water.

Even the cooking needs to be done in hiding, out of fear of attracting government planes, or those who are hungry and have no food of their own.

The air strikes are relentless. They operate using a “double tap” method that is designed to kill any Good Samaritans who come to the aid of the injured. They strike once then wait a while; then, when people gather to try to remove those stuck under the rubble, they strike again.

At night, the streets are empty. Low-flying aircraft and their cannons hover around the town, targeting anything that moves. If you must go outside, you listen carefully and wait until they pass before running for your life from one block to another, crouching in the shadows.

It is hardest for the injured. All of the hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been heavily bombed and as of two weeks ago, there are no longer any functioning. All that exists now are pop-up clinics in underground locations.

Getting to these clinics is difficult. The courageous White Helmets are no longer functioning; their ambulances cannot run without fuel or fear of being targeted. Some people risk bringing the injured to clinics in cars or pick-up trucks, if they have a few drops of fuel left. I have even seen people use wheelbarrows to transport severely injured loved ones.

If you make it to one of these “clinics”, a new kind of nightmare awaits you there - they are crammed with people, lying on the floor in pools of blood. There is so much blood that the doctors and nurses wear boots as they slip from one patient to the next.

These clinics cannot offer anything beyond emergency medical treatment, suturing wounds and trying to carry out emergency operations. Their only aim is to stop the bleeding; they can do no more than that. And the moment the doctor is able to stop the bleeding, the victim must leave. The clinics are dangerous places. The more human beings there are assembled in one place, the more likely that place is to be targeted.

’ Tomorrow will be too late for many of us’

The Syrian government opened a corridor for people to turn themselves in. Perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 did hand themselves over. But people are still flooding into our remaining enclave as the government pushes forward. Local civilians prefer to face bombs and harsh conditions rather than disappearance.

The fact that the Syrian army has already killed half a million of their own people is a big deterrent.

But now we hear reports of hundreds of men disappearing in one place, and of men being lined up for summary execution in another. It only adds to the fear of turning yourself over.

It is desperate now. The rain will stop soon and the slaughter will begin again. There must be a humanitarian corridor now. Today. Tomorrow will be too late for many of us.

Bilal Abdul Kareem

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