A Syrian child is carried during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families from rebel-held neighbourhoods on December 15, 2016 in the embattled city of Aleppo
A Syrian child is carried during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families from rebel-held neighbourhoods on December 15, 2016 in the embattled city of Aleppo © KARAM AL-MASRI - AFP/File
A Syrian child is carried during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families  from rebel-held neighbourhoods on December 15, 2016 in the embattled city of Aleppo
<
>
Omar Haj Kadour, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Aleppo evacuees tell of pain and dreams of returning

"It was the final time I saw Aleppo." Among a sea of sobbing men and hungry children Friday, Mohammad mourned his evacuation from his home town and Syria's second city.

"It was catastrophic... I was kicked out of my homeland," the university professor told AFP in English at a staging ground for evacuation operations five kilometres (three miles) west of Aleppo.

Mohammad was one of more than 8,000 people evacuated from the last opposition-controlled districts of Aleppo on Thursday, and transferred to rebel-held territory west of the city.

Buses and ambulances worked through the night to bring rebels and civilians out to Khan al-Assal, from where they would travel on to other parts of Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

But evacuations were suspended on Friday morning, leaving thousands of people still trapped in the city.

Mohammad said he was heartbroken at having left his home behind -- and terrified for family members still inside the city.

"I prayed this morning, it was the final prayer (in Aleppo), and I cried," said the young man, who had wrapped a black scarf around his head as protection from the icy December wind.

"The only thing that I am thinking about is to see some of my relatives... A lot of people are there inside Aleppo waiting," he added.

All around, hundreds of families poured from pick-up trucks and buses, carrying duffel bags stuffed with their belongings.

- Children on stretchers -

The sobs of middle-aged men were drowned out by the sirens of Red Crescent ambulances that had transported at least 250 wounded out of Aleppo.

One young boy, wearing an electric-blue jacket that reached down to his knees, carried a cage of several canaries as he wandered through the chaos.

Another child lay motionless on a stretcher, his hand wrapped in a bandage and his thin face barely visible under the mountain of brightly coloured blankets keeping him warm.

Many children looked like skeletons, and repeatedly asked aid workers for more food.

Since July, government forces have besieged rebel-held eastern Aleppo, making access to food and medicine nearly impossible for tens of thousands of people.

In mid-November, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched a blistering offensive to seize all of the city.

Regime troops and allied militia had captured more than 90 percent of the former rebel bastion in Aleppo's east when the 11th-hour evacuation deal was announced.

They survived the siege and the government offensive, but the thousands of evacuees now faced new challenges.

Some went from the transit point near Khan al-Assal to stay with relatives in rebel-held territory in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Others stayed in displacement centres or camps.

Those who needed medical attention were transferred to nearby hospitals or north to Turkey by a fast-acting team of medical professionals.

- 'Everyone let us down' -

They used walkie-talkies and a patchy internet connection at Khan al-Assal to "immediately send the wounded to the hospital with a free bed or available operating room", said Ahmad Dbis.

Dbis headed the coordination unit that organised Thursday's evacuation of wounded from Aleppo.

Representatives from rebel factions also came to Khan al-Assal to arrange treatment for their fighters.

"We left our land," said Abu Ahmad Salah, a rebel with a bushy white beard and a rifle slung over his shoulder.

"Everyone let us down," he told AFP with a wan smile.

"If we don't stand together, we'll find ourselves in a situation worse than the Palestinians. We'll wander from one house to another, one country to another," he said.

Then his tone changed from one of resignation to determination: "But we will unite, and we will come back to Aleppo."

According to UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, an estimated 40,000 civilians still live in the small pocket of rebel-held districts in Aleppo.

He said between 1,500 and 5,000 rebels and their families were also there.

"We hoped the siege would be broken," said Abu Ahmad, sporting a grey beard and navy blue hat.

His leg was amputated after fighting in Aleppo, and he struggled to get out of the bus when he reached Khan al-Assal.

"If God wills it, we will come back to Aleppo victorious," he said.

blog comments powered by Disqus