BEIRUT — As Syrian forces prepare to retake Aleppo’s final rebel footholds, tens of thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire. The city’s eastern districts — which President Bashar al-Assad’s forces lost to the rebels in 2012 — have seen the fiercest bombardment of Syria’s war. Hospitals are systematically targeted, blood banks have been destroyed, and the crisis deepens through a crippling government blockade.
“The tactics are as obvious as they are unconscionable,” Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief, told the Security Council this year. “Make life intolerable, make death likely. Push people from starvation to despair to surrender.”
As part of my reporting on Syria, I have spoken with civilians in eastern Aleppo on a daily basis. Here is what they told me:
Ali al-Halabi, 36, is an English teacher and father to three young children. His family home was destroyed last month by government shelling.
“You don’t feel the siege biting until it’s gone too far. Then the market shelves are free of everything. You see no bread, no milk, no rice. We’re eating two small meals a day now and soon it will have to be one. But you know what scares me even more than hunger? The international silence. No one has helped us. We are alone.”
Rim, 23, is from Masaken Hanano in eastern Aleppo. She has been out of contact since Nov. 26, when the area was retaken by pro-Assad forces.
“Before the war, my father worked so hard to buy me a violin. He said it was imported from France. I miss it, but not as much as I miss him. We found them both in the rubble of our home. I’m so scared in this place, but what else is there? Is it safe for us on the other side?”
Ammar al-Selmo leads the Aleppo branch of the White Helmets rescue group. The group has received international acclaim for its operations to rescue victims of shelling and airstrikes.
“Two women arrived here last week to search the body bags — they were frantic. Suddenly, a mother cried out as she reached for a leg. She said it was her husband. The other woman recognized a watch — all that was left of her son was his arm. We’re bringing in body parts at this stage.”
Fares Mashadi, 37, worked as an interior designer before the war, supporting a wife and two young children. The homes he designed have mostly been destroyed in government and Russian bombardments.
“Chewing on rotten bread is a terrible feeling, but it’ll get easier because it has to. So many of us have spent time in the regime’s detention centers. In hell. If we leave here, it’s back to that, and I’d rather die.”
Om Abdo, 38, was widowed in March 2014 when a barrel bomb killed her husband and two sons. She and her daughter, who is 7, share a first-floor apartment with seven relatives.
“I found my daughter in the kitchen piling up small bits of stone. She told me she was rebuilding Aleppo. I don’t think she knew why I was crying.”
This medic from eastern Aleppo — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — is one of 2.7 million Syrians living in Turkey. Although he is legally prohibited from working, he runs a cramped, backstreet clinic in the southern city of Kilis, aiding the rehabilitation of civilians and rebel fighters who have lost limbs in Syria’s war.
“When we return to Syria, we’ll see how many amputees, how many widows and how many orphans there really are. That’s when we’ll learn what this war has done to us.”