A ruthless battle has been raging in Aleppo for more than two months, between insurgents from the Free Syrian Army and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the situation is only getting worse.
A euronews crew led by Farouk Atig made it into Syria’s second city and main commercial hub.
To get there, we started at the Kilis border in southern Turkey. From there we were able to cross into the village of Azaz on the other side of the frontier which has been under rebel control since mid-July.
A further eighty kilometres away as the crow flies was our ultimate target Aleppo. On arrival the crew were at first struck by the level of destruction and chaos in this once prosperous city.
It was impossible to say how many people remained there as many areas were inaccessible. The city had been quite literally cut in half.
The areas held by rebels are the only places open to journalists and they were under constant bombardment
At one time the mosques were spared, but now they too lie in ruins. Even hospitals are fair game for destruction. At Dar Al Shifa, renamed the hospital of the free men, the wounded arrive continuously.
Seven doctors assisted by 10 nurses and many volunteers are responsible for their care. The real problem there was not lack of medication, but shortage of staff.
“Most of those coming in are civilians, about 80% of them are civilians and the rest are from the Free Syrian Army,” said Osman Osman an Emergency doctor.
Emergency treatment is given as quickly as possible, while doctors were trying to rehydrate one young girl a rebel fighter was brought in by his comrades returning from combat in the neighbouring district of Arkoub. But it was too late, Ibrahim was dead on arrival.
Nur Al-Hayat, a volunteer nurse was greatly angered by this: “We will win against Bashar the dog, by the will of God. We may not have the weapons the regime have, with its air force. Our weapons are so simple, but despite of this we are winning. Every day, we are making progress. Every martyr who is sacrificed is replaced by 100 more,” she said.
Many of those who choose to leave are reluctant to head for the Turkish border, as they fear they will be turned away.
We saw one man and his family who did not wish to be identified, heading for the airport area still held by the regime. Bombs are still falling as they left the city.
In the Hanano and Tarik el-Bab neighbourhoods, the threat comes mainly from the sky. Combat aircraft and helicopters constantly circle like vultures over the rubble. By now everyone seems to be used to the danger.
While the euronews crew were filming a Russian-made MIG dropped a bomb just a few hundred metres away.
On the roads out of Aleppo, we met lots of people who are trying to make it to the Turkish border where their family was waiting for them. They took only the bare necessities.
We asked Ahmed Nassou who is from Aleppo why he was fleeing:
“We had to leave very quickly because of the bombs that did not stop falling. It was really scary. Everything was destroyed, I saw children die, crushed by the weight of the buildings that collapsed on them,” he said. We agreed with Ahmed and his family to meet up later.
The City of Marea is a few kilometres away. We travelled there and saw the result of several months of relentless air strikes.
Suspecting that the rebels were using one of the schools as a base, the regular army blew it to smithereens. Hakim, a local teacher, complained that there could have been children inside.
“That’s Bashar al-Assad’s reforms? Bombing schools?” He said. “Where are the weapons? Where is the Free Army? There’s nobody here! He also wants to kill our children and destroy their schools?
“Fine destroy everything if you want, we don’t care! What’s it all for?”
He then showed us what was left of the school.
“Even during the two world wars schools were spared. What are they looking for? Terrorists? There’s nobody here.
“The official media claims the gangs hide here, that weapons are stored in the schools. I challenge Assad’s army to find a single drop of blood here. If there was anyone here, we’d see blood. Look at the ground.”
Not far from there, we meet with Abu Hassan and Fatma. From the outset, the couple took part in the revolt against the regime. Their names are now on the blacklist.
The owner of a clothes shop, Fatma would regularly commute between her village and Aleppo.
Ahmed, worked in the funeral business, he saw the first casualties of the conflict:
“Their heads were split in two with an axe,” he said. “After 13 days they totally stunk and the skulls were filled with worms.
“We buried them all and then we were brought 5 other bodies, but their remains were impossible to identify, even by their own families “
His wife, Fatma, vowed to oust President Assad:
“This is our destiny with this gang of murderers. I swear we will not give up till our last breath. We will kick him and his gang out and we will live if God wills it with liberty and security and you will see how Syria will recover after this pig.”
We also met two young deserters here, one of them had been imprisoned for several months before the FSA liberated him.
“I deserted because we were asked to kill people, and I refused,” he said.
The other added:
“We were not allowed to leave our unit. For several months we stayed confined with others without outside contact, not even with our own families.”
Back to Aleppo. In the north-east of the city, the thunder of bombs resembles the Pneumatic drills used to free survivors from the rubble.
It was here in a hidden location that we found Abdelkader el-Haji, the 32-year-old leader of the Tawhid brigade, the largest component of the FSA, which boasts no fewer than 6,000 fighters.
He says the massacres reported by NGOs are attributable only to the regime:
“The only ones committing massacres are the soldiers of the regular army, the regime. There’s a Legislative Council of the FSA
, and only that decides the prisoners’ fate. The regular Army commits atrocities and summary executions in the streets openly, for all to see.”
On the roof of a nearby building we met Mariam, a journalist who lives in the government area and supports the insurgency. She had been involved in a secret meeting to coordinate attacks against the regime. She explained how many people were feeling in the city:
“In general, people are afraid of death. This revolution has taken place so we can live fairly. We hope not to die, but we are always afraid that it could happen.”
We returned to a hospital that we had been visiting that very morning to find two fresh shell craters. It was around this time we decided to leave Aleppo. The level of violence surpassed our expectations and we decided to get out ahead of schedule.
When we arrived at the Turkish border, Ahmed found his wife who had fled three weeks earlier with their children. They were obviously happy to see each other but peace is still some way away.
Unable to cope with the flood of refugees, Turkey temporarily restricted access to the Kilis Refugee Camp.
Ahmed’s Wife said:
“Turkey refused to let us cross the border. We have been stuck here near the border for 20 days. We are living in the street, there is no food, no water to wash, and no electricity. There’s a lot of Illness caused by that, but we have no choice. What can we do? Go back to Aleppo? The city is being bombed with aircraft so only God can help us.”
Others on the border were in a similar situation.
“Obama should do something,” one man said. “He must force out the tyrant. We’ve asked for a no fly zone for planes and missiles and for NATO to bomb our country.”
Another asked “Is this child a terrorist for you? Or that one? Why do they force us to flee our country to be treated as outcasts by our Arab brothers?”
We saw another young man in a wheelchair, he said: “Nobody wants us on one side or the other. Where do you want us to go? We’ve abandoned our homes, our villages, our families. Where can we go now?”
Stranded with nowhere to go, for now they can only hope this nightmare will end.
Reportage : Farouk Atig
Images : François Berthaut
Montage : Kollmannsberger Jérôme