A Syrian man holds his robe while walking in the partially destroyed Salaheddin neighbourhood of Aleppo
© Joseph Eid, AFP
A Syrian man holds his robe while walking in the partially destroyed Salaheddin neighbourhood of Aleppo
Last updated: May 5, 2014

Aleppo’s hellish road to heaven

Banner Icon The Death Road has divided Syria's biggest city. As families attempt to cross the line for food and safety, snipers strike hard. This is the story of one such family.

Waking up early morning every day, Adeeb sips his Syrian coffee while staring out the wide window of his room.

His thoughts stray into Aleppo as he scans the sky with empty eyes. He reminds himself again that this cozy Istanbul apartment offers too little comfort to his wounds of three long years of conflict, consuming the birthplace of the world's oldest civilizations and religions.

Adeeb cries remembering the last moments at his house, “We bid farewell to our two-room home. None of us was sure if we’ll be able to visit here again.”

The decision to move to Turkey was not easy. Adeeb’s family waited until they ran out of choices.

"I have two boys, Alaa and Ahmad, and I was worried for their freedom and life," says Rana, Adeeb’s wife.

Adeeb’s family waited until they ran out of choices

Adeeb is a dentist whose clientele shrank as the road to their area was closed. His home lies in Al Nil Street, on the edge of a regime-controlled part of Aleppo while the majority of his clients used to come from the part now with Bostan al Qasir brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Like hundreds of resilient residents of the city who did not migrate, the family also suffered shortages of food, medicine and oil.

"We could not eat three times a day. Sometimes we did not have electricity for a month. It was like living in a cave,” says Adeeb.

Leaving their house and neighbors was certainly a heartbreaking story. More challenging was crossing the dangerous road into Turkey alive and well. The metaled path is rightly named as Maabar al Mout, or Death Road.

Both sides shoot at sight in anticipation for suicide bombers concealing themselves as migrants. Desperate Syrians still venture out seeking forgiveness from God for the sin and wanting his safety to reach refugee camps in Turkey.

The buildings along this 1km patch are either completely destroyed or punctured with bullets as snipers guard their rooftops.

Activists claim that around a dozen victims are killed and wounded daily by snipers. “You can’t predict what is the right or safe time to move across. People just make suicidal decisions in desperation.”

"Amidst extreme insecurity and bitter rivalry, either side won't trust the other side, including the poor civilians divided by guns. We saw the same in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and now Syria," says Naveed Ahmad, a journalist specializing in conflict reporting, who has worked in Africa and Asia for two decades.

He adds, "The plight of civilians always becomes a subject of research but none can offer considerable help during the conflict, even the scope of ICRC assistance is so limited."

Adeeb left the home holding the hand of his wife and elder son. “It was a sizeable group and we were moving slowly, praying in fear,” he recalls. The snipers did not spare them.

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“The man ahead of me died of a sniper bullet. Thinking myself to be the next, I started to pray for safety of my family.”

There were some bizarre barricades to hide behind. A few unfortunate upturned buses laid along the road. They offered a façade of shelter.

“Leaving the dead on the road, we hid behind the buses and gradually trickled out one by one or maximum in twos. Surprisingly, the snipers did not aim at the bus,” he explains.

Months later, Adeeb and his family can’t forget that eventful day.

Moving out of the dead side under regime control with no electricity or food, the other side had shops with goods and customers, volunteers busy in camps and commuter vans leaving for the Turkish side on whatever was left of the road.

Thousands are forced to risk every day on this road to bring food and fuel at reasonable prices. Some even had to enter the regime’s area to attend to their government jobs.

“I had to ask my friend who visits us occasionally to bring me some food with her from the eastern side, as everything is expensive in our area,” Rana comments.

Adeeb interrupts, “Everyone is subject to inspection for weapons and goods. You have to be lucky if allowed to take your goods along.”

An unfortunate ban remains imposed by the guards on either side to prevent movement of flour, bread, fuel or cigarettes towards the Al-Nil street.

Last week, the anti-Assad forces controlling Aleppo ordered the closure of Death Road on the pretext of repeated attacks by ‘Ba’athist gangs’ against civilians, often humiliating and sometimes killing them.

Monzer Arafa, another resident of Aleppo who lives in Turkey now, says, “To meet our loved ones, getting humiliated by the troops was no cost. Separation is a bigger punishment and the FSA should not have done so.”

The decision surely resulted in less traffic on the road but many still take the risk and feel anger against the FSA commanders. Tension is high between the FSA guards and the citizen seeking to move freely.

The Death Road symbolizes many similar situations across Syria’s divided cities

While Heba Zayat insists, “We should not forget that Aleppo is one city and we are all brothers, both sides need each other, especially those stranded in the regime’s side need humanitarian help."

The Death Road symbolizes many similar situations across Syria’s divided cities, where peaceful protests for democracy and dignity were answered by excessive use of force.

Recently, Kasab road crossing was closed by the military after the clashes erupted with the FSA near the countryside of Latakia. The closure prevented thousands from reaching safety in Turkey.

“Even if the FSA keep it open, regime’s men shut it nevertheless. We don’t want to lose the freedom of this part by having infiltrated by his troops or spies (mukhbarat),” says Amjad, refusing to give his full name.

Aleppo residents are forced to choose other ways, for example, through al-Khanasir crossing which connects Aleppo’s countryside with Hama city. The road offers little relief as it takes hours to reach with all checkpoints and snipers around.  Besides, there is always a looming threat of closure by the regime’s men. 

“I feel lucky that I left with my family before they closed the road. My heart goes out for thousands of Syrians who would not be able to flee the atrocities,” Adeeb sighs in grief.

Alia Turki Al-Rabeo
Alia is a journalist. She co-founded Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges won UN X-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. Besides reporting for regional newspapers, she has been contributing to Institute for War & Peace Reporting, and The International Women's Perspective.
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