Syria conflict: Barrel-bombed Aleppo 'living in fear'

Ian Pannell reports from the streets of Aleppo, where a boy was pulled from the rubble after a barrel bomb attack

A BBC team has witnessed the devastating effects of air bombardment on Syrian civilians after gaining rare access to rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

Emergency rescue teams told the BBC the city was living in "danger and fear".

Thousands of people are reported to have been killed or maimed in a campaign of aerial bombardment in northern Syria this year.

Ian Pannell and cameraman Darren Conway were the first Western broadcasters in rebel-held Aleppo this year.

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If these... weapons managed to hit a military target, it would be sheer luck”

End Quote Sarah Leah Whitson Human Rights Watch

Um Yahya wept. With two small children at her side, the young mother was standing in what until that morning had been her home. It was now a wreck: a tangle of rubble and cables and dust, with half the ceiling missing and parts of the building completely razed.

"My husband was sitting at breakfast. We heard the first blast: it sounded far away. But I asked him to go and get the kids off the street. And suddenly it hit us."

Consumed by shock and grief, she described the moment the barrel bomb landed on her street. "It was as if someone picked me up and threw me inside".

Her husband, who had gone to find their children, was badly injured and had been whisked off to hospital. Her parents have fled to Turkey and she is now alone with her children. "I have nowhere to go," she said. "I just want my husband and nothing else."

BBC crew witness devastation of air bombardment on Aleppo

'I am so scared'

Outside, the emergency rescue team of the Civil Defence Force (CDF) scoured through the rubble. With little training and limited equipment from Britain, America and elsewhere, theirs is a task as grim as it is dangerous.

When there is an attack on residential areas, they race in to search for survivors and - as often as not - to recover bodies.

In the last year, eight crew members have been killed as they brave bombs and bullets to rescue others.

Excavation at site of blast Rescuers brave attack to respond at the sites of bombardments in Aleppo

Khalid Al Heju, the head of the CDF in Aleppo, says it is their responsibility to help those who have no one else to turn to.

"Our humanity urges us to do this job, to save people from under the rubble and take them to hospital," he says.

But he admits to living with fear, like so many others in this battered city. "Yes, I am scared, I am so scared. The same position is often hit more than one time.

"This is creating the most danger and fear for us."

Like the people they save, they face attacks from the land and air.

'Indiscriminate, dumb weapons'
Damaged building in Aleppo The conflict has laid waste to large parts of the city

Since last September Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its former economic capital, has been at the receiving end of what the pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls "an indiscriminate and unlawful air war against civilians by the Syrian government". Last month HRW produced a study into the scale of the attacks.

Analysis

Barrel bombs are just what their name implies - large cylindrical metal containers filled with explosive and shrapnel that are typically rolled out of the door of a helicopter. They were initially dropped from a low altitude, which afforded a reasonable degree of accuracy, but the possession of portable surface-to-air missiles by the rebels has forced the helicopters higher and any accuracy has disappeared.

The barrel bombs have become significantly larger over time and on occasion have had additional tanks welded to them with suggestions that these might contain inflammable fuel, additional explosives or even possibly chemicals, such as chlorine.

Despite being rudimentary weapons, their destructive power is considerable - though they are only one part of a Syrian government's arsenal that has been employed against civilian areas - and their use could well constitute a war crime.

HRW says the use of barrel bombs has "terrorised" Aleppo in recent months.

The bombs are crude devices, often made from oil drums or large gas bottles, packed with explosives and bits of metal, that are literally tossed over the side of helicopters.

The devastation they cause and the fear they instil has forced tens of thousands of people to flee the city this year, according to charities and NGOs working with displaced families.

"Satellite photos and witness accounts show the brutality unleashed on parts of Aleppo," according to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"If these indiscriminate, dumb weapons managed to hit a military target, it would be sheer luck," she says.

In a rare show of unity over Syria, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution in February that called for an immediate end to "all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs".

The Violations Documentation Center, an opposition monitoring group, claims nearly 700 civilians have been killed across Aleppo province by warplanes and barrel bombs since the UN resolution was agreed.

The resolution also called for an immediate end to all forms of violence and called on both sides to cease attacking and besieging civilians as a tactic of war. That has also not happened.

apartment building in Aleppo Even nightfall brings no respite from the war for Aleppo's residents

President Bashar al-Assad insists his military is fighting to protect civilians, targeting what he calls "terrorists and foreign extremists". The armed opposition has also been accused of human rights violations and there have have been many cases where the rebels have killed civilians through bombardment, but on a very different scale.

World's 'indifference'

We have been coming to Aleppo since the battle began here, nearly two years ago.

Sigrid Kaag, who is overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons: "The biggest bulk of the chemical weapons material is removed but not yet destroyed"

The report of war is the soundtrack for a city that is a shabby imitation of its former self.

Whole neighbourhoods lie empty; the facades of buildings have been ripped off, piles of rubble lie where homes used to stand, and roads are blocked by the charred remains of buses that protect passers-by from the scopes of snipers.

Even in the still of night, in a city consumed by darkness, the war grinds on.

The battle for Aleppo sharply escalated a few weeks ago as different rebel groups launched a surprise joint attack on government positions.

Map of the frontlines and contested areas in Aleppo

Abu Bakri is a leader of the Abu Amara Brigades, one of the groups on the frontline, and claims the bombing has galvanised the rebels.

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People here started to hate both sides. We don't want the regime forces or the FSA; [we] just want to live in peace”

End Quote Feras English teacher in Aleppo

"The regime has been threatening citizens with barrel bombs and airstrikes. It made all the armed factions in the city come together and form a joint operations room," he says.

"We are learning from our mistakes and trying to be more organised with weapons we have and use in better way."

As many as 70% of Aleppo's residents are thought to have abandoned the city to the two warring groups. "Life here totally sucks," says Feras, a young English teacher living in one of the neighbourhoods that has been attacked. He was afraid to give his family name.

Aleppo facts

  • Major industrial centre
  • Population of 2.3 million in 2005
  • Mainly Sunni Muslim
  • Largest Christian population in Syria
  • Aleppo Old City is a Unesco World Heritage site
  • Became key battleground in July 2012

"It isn't a life: [we are] afraid of shells falling on our heads day or night. We don't know if we go this way, if it's safe or not."

There are no signs of an end to this war, despite President Assad's reported prediction it will be over by the end of the year.

A trickle of aid makes its way across the border but Syrians feel shunned by what they see as the indifference of the outside world. They are defenceless in the face of incessant attacks, caught between two sides determined to fight to the bitter end and with little hope of either respite or relief.

Feras supported the revolution when it began. People used to talk about freedom and democracy in Syria. Today the talk is only of bombs and bullets, of deprivation and despair.

"Many armed groups here are stealing houses, not doing good to people. That's why people here started to hate both sides. We don't want the regime forces or the FSA; [we] just want to live in peace."

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