Aleppo refugees tell horror stories of barrel bombs falling from the sky

Refugees tell terrifying stories of barrel bombs packed with explosives that are laying waste to whole neighbourhoods in a systematic pattern

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 5:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 5:04pm

Syrians reaching this Turkish border town after escaping the northern city of Aleppo bring horror stories about exploding barrels that fall from the sky.

The worst part was the terrifying anticipation as the barrel bombs were unleashed from helicopters roaring overhead, said one man who fled after three bombs demolished the street where he was living.

The sight of rescuers scraping human remains from the pavement outside her home prompted another of the refugees to leave. A grandmother, said she left simply because life had become unsustainable in the wrecked, rubble-strewn city, where entire neighbourhoods have been depopulated.

“Aleppo is empty,” she said as she sat with her luggage and children after arriving in Turkey last week. “There’s no one left — no shops, no markets, no life at all.”

As peace talks in Geneva ended in deadlock on Saturday, with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi setting no date for their resumption, the Syrian government’s barrel bombing campaign against the rebel-held half of Aleppo offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead for the country now that negotiations have failed.

The campaign, which began in December, intensified as the peace talks got under way last month, underlining one of the biggest impediments to a negotiated settlement, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar.

Over the past week, the attacks reached a new peak, triggering a fresh exodus of panicked people into the surrounding countryside and across the border into Turkey.

The barrels — crude cylinders stuffed with TNT that are being tipped out of aircraft at the rate of 20 a day — have killed hundreds and injured thousands.

They are almost all being dropped over residential areas, and though they lack precision, they are systematically hitting one neighbourhood after another, suggesting an intent to drive people out, residents say.

“I saw body parts all over the street. There was a body hanging from the electricity cables. There were injured people everywhere,” said Mohammed Abdo, 30, from a hospital bed in Kilis. “But only a few people were helping them, because everyone is afraid to go outside.”

Barrel bombs are also increasingly being deployed in other rebel strongholds around Syria, bringing a new dimension to the violence of a war already renowned for its brutality.

Unlike the sarin gas and ballistic missiles that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has previously deployed to crush the rebellion, barrel bombs are cheap and easy to manufacture from readily available components, and the government has a seemingly unlimited supply.

They are also powerful enough to demolish buildings, obliterate homes and incinerate people, and their stepped-up use has been the primary cause of a sharp increase in deaths in Syria over the past three weeks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that 3,400 people have been killed since the Geneva talks began, making the more than three weeks since “the most concentrated period of killing in the entire duration of the conflict”, according to Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations.

In Aleppo, Syria’s former commercial capital and a key strategic prize, the government appears to be pushing for the kind of successes that it has achieved elsewhere by making life untenable for ordinary people, said Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

That, in turn, puts pressure on opposition fighters to submit to deals similar to those that have pacified suburbs of Damascus in recent months, as well as the agreement that brought aid to the centre of Homs.

“It’s like the end of the world,” said Abu Hussein, who fled Aleppo last week. “The only people left are the poorest of the poor, and they are just waiting for death.”

Watch: Syrian refugees evacuated from beseiged Homs

Watch: Syrian refugees evacuated from beseiged Homs