SYRIA

Who’ll stop the rain? Aleppo reels under new air strikes described as the worst ever seen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 4:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 9:37pm

Residents of the Syrian city of Aleppo have grown used to the explosions. But on Friday, the bombs rained down like never before.

First, a nationwide cease-fire collapsed. Then, on Thursday, government forces warned that they would retake the part of the city held by rebels. By Friday night, hundreds of strikes had pounded Aleppo, and scores of people were dead.

“The bombing is constant, and it doesn’t stop,” said Om Majed Karman, a resident of a part of Aleppo now under attack. The past few days, she said, have been “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The offensive dealt a fresh blow to efforts to revive the ceasefire, which was sponsored by Russia and the United States. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said the situation was “really tragic”.

Russia and the US must unite to end Syria’s suffering

The next few days “are crucial for making or breaking it”, he said. The meetings between the United States and Russia have been “long, painful, and disappointing”.

Now, residents in the eastern part of Aleppo – Syria’s largest city – are under bombardment and grappling with the shocks of the last two weeks.

An estimated 250,000 people remain in eastern Aleppo, which the rebels have controlled since 2012. But residents are cut off from food, fuel and water, and government planes frequently bomb the area.

The truce, which began on September 12, brought a rare calm, silencing weapons and allowing residents to sleep. Children frolicked in parks, and neighbours chatted. Both activities would have been unthinkable just days earlier.

Jets pound rebel-held Aleppo as army offensive begins

The welcome lull in violence lasted six days. But the ceasefire was rapidly unravelling, and the United Nations struggled to get aid to the besieged populace.

The United Nations prepared a 40-truck convoy with packages of rice, flour, oil and beans to feed roughly 80,000 people for a month. But the trucks remained stuck on the Turkey-Syria border, awaiting clearance from the Syrian government to proceed.

The hold-up in relief supplies made the ceasefire bittersweet. There were no bombs, but neither was there food, fuel or electricity.

When the bombs stop, “then you just start worrying about immediate problems”, said Karman, 58.

“If there is food, if the children are OK,” she said. “There is no milk, no cheese, nothing. We are living on the last of the aid.”

But even as Syrians emerged to enjoy the ceasefire, the accord quickly crumbled, shattering their hopes of even temporary peace.

“This is not the same city as last week,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a civil-defence volunteer with the White Helmets group.

Selmo is director of the White Helmets’ Aleppo branch. Overnight Thursday, three of the group’s four centres were bombed. The strikes destroyed vehicles and equipment, and volunteers could not reach the trapped and wounded.

Aleppo hit by ‘most intense’ strikes in months, as Putin, Assad spurn US plea to halt flights

The war, which began in 2011 with demonstrations against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, has killed nearly half a million people. The United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey are all involved in the fighting.

Russia and the United States are on opposing sides in the war, but together they have brokered two ceasefires that have failed.

Russia intervened last year to prop up Assad, sending troops and aircraft into the country. The United States, meanwhile, has trained some rebel groups and backs the Syrian opposition. At the same time, the United States is spearheading air strikes against the Islamic State extremist group.

Each side has accused the other of violating the latest ceasefire, or at least failing to persuade local allies to abide by it. A week ago, warplanes from the US-led coalition mistakenly struck a camp occupied by Syrian government soldiers, killing more than 60 troops. Russia blamed the United States.

Later, US officials blamed Russia for deadly strikes on a humanitarian convoy. That attack killed more than 20 people, including aid workers, and temporarily halted the movement of UN convoys in Syria.

Still, residents of eastern Aleppo have their own coping mechanisms. And amid the political and diplomatic chaos, they reach for small moments of daily normality.

Karman, whose son was killed, rocks her two-year-old granddaughter when the air strikes are frighteningly loud.

“The older children have stopped caring, in a way,” she said. “They stay in the street and watch the planes so they can figure out where they’re going.”

Amr Arab and his family survived an assault on their home on Wednesday. He said he tells his brother’s children stories to distract them from the war.

“We try to talk and joke,” he said. “To make it seem like it’s not a big deal, and so the children stay calm.”

In the mornings, teacher Mohammed Adel and his pregnant wife, Rahaf, thank God that they are alive.

“She asks me for apples, but I can’t bring them,” Adel said of his wife. Her diet now is just rice, dates and beans.

In the Arab household – which includes Amr’s aunt, his brother and his brother’s children - everyone sleeps in the same room each night.

“We head to the basement, or rooms close to the centre of the house,” said Arab, 24.

“We open the doors, and make sure there is no metal,” he said. “Because it will turn into shrapnel.