Syrian rebels commandeer a police vehicle during clashes with government troops
Syrian rebels commandeer a police vehicle during clashes with government troops in the Salhin district of the northern city of Aleppo. © Pierre Torres - AFP
Syrian rebels commandeer a police vehicle during clashes with government troops
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Alison Tahmizian Meuse, AFP
Last updated: July 31, 2012

Syria's former safe havens no longer a refuge

For 16 months, Syria's two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo were seen as safe havens from the country's bloodshed, but deadly fighting over the past two weeks is forcing people who took refuge there to flee yet again.

Displaced at least twice since fleeing the flashpoint central city of Homs in March, one family is now looking to escape Damascus and possibly return home, after the capital was engulfed in violence last week.

"We fled Homs in March, after my sister, an activist, was detained," said an 18-year-old who gave her name as Alma. "We went to Lebanon to start with, but there was no help and we couldn't afford to stay."

The family moved to Rokn Eddin in Damascus, once considered Syria's most secure city.

But the neighbourhood has been the scene of intense clashes for the past fortnight between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting to topple his autocratic regime.

"We just don't know where to go any more," she said, adding that many Homs families who moved to Damascus have decided to go back to their beleaguered city.

"I went to the bus stop today and saw hundreds queue for transport to Homs," she told AFP.

"I suppose they must feel that if they are going to live in danger, they might as well be home."

Tens of thousands of people fleeing the violence in Syria have taken refuge in neighbouring countries, notably Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

As of last week, at least 1.5 million people were listed as internally displaced as a result of the conflict, according to Guillaume Charron of the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

In Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, fierce clashes broke out on Saturday between the army and rebels, triggering an exodus of about 200,000 people in the course of two days, according to the United Nations.

An unknown number remain trapped or displaced within the city.

On Saturday, Leila (also not her real name) and her family spent the entire day below ground, as regime forces battled rebels holed up in the adjacent district of Salaheddin.

"We were in the basement the whole day while jets were bombing overhead. We could hear the sounds of shelling and gunfire. It was unbearable," she said.

As shelling and fighting dragged on the next morning, Leila, her mother and two siblings decided to make the harrowing drive from the southwestern suburb toward her grandmother's house near the city centre.

But her father stayed behind. "He refused to leave our home empty," Leila said.

"We are now officially refugees, but thank God we are in a better situation than those who are in the streets," she said. "I just want to get back home as soon as possible."

Moving from one district to another is a "gamble," said an activist working with a network of Aleppo volunteers organising food and shelter who gave his name as Abu Leila.

"All movement is within Aleppo," he said. "There is nowhere left for these people except the safer neighbourhoods."

Abu Leila estimates that as many as 70,000 people are currently being sheltered in schools, university dorms and charity centres.

"The rest either have relatives and friends to shelter them, or they are still in parks and streets waiting for help."

The volunteer network maintains an interactive Google map of shelters in Aleppo, where they work around the clock to take care of the displaced. On Monday alone, five schools opened their doors.

"It's amazing. Yesterday there was a wedding in one of those schools," he said, where a common humanitarian crisis has brought together people of all backgrounds.

In the makeshift shelters, "there is no problem between the supporters of the government and the opposition. They are all in the same position," he said.

But the spirit of charity is not infinite, and shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies are taking their toll on all levels of society.

"In the first days there was a huge rush of all citizens to donate food, clothing, anything they had. Since the situation is going worse that support is decreasing because people are worried about their own future," Abu Leila said.

Paul Stromberg, deputy representative of the UN refugee body in Damascus, said that the recent upheaval in the capital and Aleppo has left family networks and a culture of hospitality under duress.

"There is a lot of tension," he said. Communities may perceive a sudden population influx as "a problem spilling over, not people."

Moreover, the rebels are not welcome everywhere, "because the residents are becoming the targets of shelling," said Abu Leila.

"You see a tweet that a neighbourhood is liberated -- that means that neighbourhood is becoming a scene of war."

In turn, he points out, the army bombards rebel-held areas "without any consideration for civilians."

"Aleppo and Damascus are the last refuges of the Syrian population," the young activist said.

"Any further escalation in these two cities, like the one that happened in Hama or Homs, would be a giant humanitarian crisis. In a word, a genocide."

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