Friday 20 September 2019

Guns turned on children as battle of Aleppo ends

As sides argue over responsibility, someone has carried out a war crime in shattered Syrian city

SAFE AT LAST: Syrian father Ali embraces one of his children upon their arrival at Turkish crossing gate of Cilvegozu
SAFE AT LAST: Syrian father Ali embraces one of his children upon their arrival at Turkish crossing gate of Cilvegozu

Laila Bassam

The day that was supposed to mark an end to Aleppo's violence started with some of its most despicable acts of all. The sun had barely risen when an ambulance was attacked as it tried to evacuate injured children. The rebels blamed an Iranian-backed militia. Whoever carried it out is guilty of a war crime.

Footage filmed for ITV News showed the harrowing scenes as children screamed in terror and cowed in a building, as the gunman tried to pick them off.

RUNNING THE GAUNTLET: Syrian boy makes his way through the rubble to his house in Aleppo’s Dahret Awad neighbourhoodin
RUNNING THE GAUNTLET: Syrian boy makes his way through the rubble to his house in Aleppo’s Dahret Awad neighbourhoodin

Those responsible must have known that a ceasefire was supposed to be in place and that the battle of Aleppo was in its final few hours. Yet they pulled the trigger anyway.

The images of injured children being shot at while they attempt to board an ambulance is sickening. They are scenes that should shame world leaders who had failed to end the fighting in Syria's largest city.

I watched that morning from a hotel overlooking the remaining rebel enclave as President Bashar al-Assad's gunners continued to take pot-shots at the crumbling buildings on the front line. The previous day we had been admonished by the brigadier general in charge of retaking the city for seeking to witness what was happening.

Our foray into the bitter rain had been pointless, as the first planned evacuation on Wednesday unravelled amid arguments over the precise terms. It resulted in a fierce firefight followed by heavy shelling and air strikes.

I witnessed a bright white substance burning for several minutes after one attack on the ever-diminishing rebel enclave; possibly evidence of white phosphorous shells being used.

By Thursday, the shelling had stopped once again, as a second attempt to end the siege began. This time, while we were still not officially supposed to go where the evacuation was starting, we found we were cautiously welcomed by soldiers who were heavily armed and deployed on every street corner. The secret police who had taken up ringside seats on rooftops overlooking the front line, were relaxed and apparently happy with our presence.

Finally, we too were allowed on to the roof to take up a filming position, as the 25 buses got ready to enter rebel-held territory. In the next five hours, I saw the operation to evacuate civilians and rebel fighters, while a similar operation got under way to bring out pro-Assad civilians surrounded by rebels in Kefreya and Foua, in Idlib province to the south-west.

This was an exchange of lives arranged between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, all of whom have a stake in this conflict. Why, though, has it taken so long to get to this point?

The operation was repeated several times as each enclave was emptied. It marked a watershed in Syria's protracted civil war, handing President Assad a victory celebrated by crowds looking on. In government-controlled Aleppo there was little sympathy for rebel fighters who many characterise as simply "terrorists".

Ali, who preferred not to give his full name, said: "People are tired of these rebels. The people of west Aleppo have been living in horror for five years." When I asked if he thought residents could ever forgive each other, he said: "They used to live for 7,000 years with each other. I think they will forgive each other."

But the inconvenient truth is that the people of Aleppo weren't fighting each other. This started as a battle between a regime and those who dared to oppose its tyranny. In some places, the idealistic opposition didn't last long. Liberal goals were soon overtaken by the philosophy of hardline jihadists, who replaced moderate rebels, giving the government the perfect pretext to exterminate everyone who resisted.

Chlorine bombs, sarin gas, white phosphorous and cluster bombs have all been deployed in an attempt to wipe out those who dared to oppose the regime. It has brought President Assad the victory he likens to an historical watershed, but the cost is astonishing.

Thousands of homes have been pulverised, entire neighbourhoods levelled. For many, though, this is better than another night in the refugee camps. One has 5,000 people camping in the most appalling conditions inside large warehouses. They lie on the freezing concrete floor, huddled under blankets.

Aleppo may have fallen to the government, but it is now a shattered city, inhabited by a broken people.

Those that have managed to board a bus out of the city to the rebel-held territory a few miles outside may consider themselves lucky. But the irony is that the very same forces that gave them safe passage will now attack them. The battle for Aleppo may be over, but the war hasn't claimed its last victims yet.

© Telegraph

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