Syria: Refugees tell of the horrors of the flight from Aleppo
ONLY a few roads are still open for refugees to escape Aleppo. Those leading northwards from Syria's commercial capital have not yet been sealed off by President Bashar al-Assad's forces - and perhaps a tenth of the city's population of about 2 million has fled along them.
Once in relative safety, those who made the journey describe the scenes they left behind. "The first time we were shelled on my street ten days ago, I rushed to the area and found three bodies with their heads blown off," said Hassan Farouk, a grocer. He had just reached a relative's house in Marea village, 10 miles north of Aleppo, along with his wife and eight children.
"A few days later a family of six was killed. I tried to pick up the bodies but they were in pieces and I could not complete the task," added Mr Farouk. "After that my children begged me to leave."
The tactics of both sides have endangered civilians. By seizing parts of Aleppo, the rebels knew they would draw the retaliation of a regime that cannot afford to lose the city. The United Nations estimates that 200,000 of Aleppo's citizens have fled since Saturday.
Mr Farouk and his family walked until a car stopped and offered them a lift. "We carried what we could and walked for two hours. My children are aged between four years old and 16, but Zaindeen, one of my children, is disabled so I had to carry her and my wife carried my youngest," he said.
"Eventually a van stopped and took us here."
Hardly any food supplies or other relief is available to the refugees. Various countries have promised aid worth tens of millions of dollars for refugees who escape over the border into tented camps in Turkey, but there is little or no help in northern Syria.
People depend on the compassion and solidarity of their extended families. The Farouks are alternating between staying with brothers and cousins. "We spend two nights in one place and then move on," said Mr Farouk.
Osama Hansbo, a 28-year old factory worker, left Aleppo with his family of five after the machinery plant where he worked was hit by crossfire. "I have no savings and I am very grateful for a schoolroom to live in," he said. "I give thanks to God to be away from the shelling." The fledging authorities in rebel-held areas have opened schools and government offices to house the most needy.
Many of those who remain inside Aleppo are waiting for the safest moment to escape. Omar, who was born and raised in the city, said that his cousin was still living there with his two sons and two daughters, all under the age of 11. "He told me that he is waiting for a calm moment, a break in the fighting, to leave," said Omar. "He told me he has watched the behaviour of his children change; they are more serious and sullen, they don't play any more and they seem to have lost touch with the present. The children don't sleep any more and they leap out of bed in panic at the sudden bursts of gunfire."
The Gello and Kino families arrived in Marea better prepared than many: Hassan Gello even managed to bring 14 cages containing his breeder stock of coloured budgerigars. At their new schoolroom home, the vegetables piled up on the desks were donated by local villagers. How long charity can support the refugees is open to question. Turkey has closed its border with Syria; meanwhile the struggle for Aleppo, the epicentre of the local economy, threatens to impoverish the entire region. As far away as Greece, 1,800 troops have been deployed to guard the border with Turkey and prevent an inflow of Syrian refugees.
Local leaders direct their anger at the outside world. "The civilised societies have not reacted so far. This is a bad sign for countries that pride themselves on their values," said Abu Mahmoud, the mayor of Marea. "Sometimes I think they are more interested in watching the Olympic Games than helping the victims of barbarity."