News

As bombs from Russian and Syrian government forces rain down on Aleppo, the city has become an ‘apocalyptic battlefront’ with civilians as collateral damage and foreign aid unable to get through. By John Martinkus.

Syrian city of Aleppo under siege

A grief-stricken father watches on as rescuers pull the body of his daughter from the rubble of a building following government air strikes in Aleppo this week.
Credit: KARAM AL-MASRI / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

As you read this, there are people in Syria being reduced to pink mist. That is what happens when bombs catch someone in the open. These are bombs so powerful they basically vaporise a human being. For those lucky enough to seek cover in cellars or the internal rooms of large buildings, the death is longer, more lingering. Concrete and breezeblock floors of the multistorey buildings collapse. They pancake down in layers under the explosives dropped from above, trapping those sheltering underneath. Some people will be dug out and may live, but the chances of survival are slim. They will be rushed to a hospital with no medicine. Treated by doctors with no sanitised equipment. No pain relief, no surgical tools, just a couple of bandages to stem the bleeding and a place on the floor on a blood-soaked piece of cardboard. 

These hospitals also get bombed, by the Russians, by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, sometimes by the United States-led allied coalition. Australia is involved, too. An air strike involving Australian planes killed at least 60 Syrian government troops two weeks ago. It was a mistake, apparently. Defence Minister Marise Payne told The Saturday Paper in a statement: “The International Coalition will review this incident in full and Australia will co-operate … the government will not provide any further details at this time.”

This is happening today and it will happen tomorrow and the day after that.

In Aleppo now there is no running water. The bombing has smashed the pipes. The pumping plant is out of action anyway. Since the ceasefire collapsed on September 19, the 250,000 people in rebel-held eastern Aleppo have been subject to massive bombing by Russian and Syrian government forces. The most frightening development has been the use of Russian bunker-buster bombs that penetrate deep into the earth and are intended to destroy underground shelters. The indiscriminate use of the inaccurate and powerful barrel bombs from Syrian regime aircraft has also increased. They are not guided, just flung out of aircraft. They land randomly in the besieged area. Latest reports indicate the Syrian army ground forces have begun to move into eastern Aleppo.

Matthew Saltmarsh, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman for Syria, described to The Saturday Paper the difficulties faced by his organisation in delivering aid to the besieged areas, even during the so-called ceasefire. “Deliveries of cross-border and cross-line aid were curtailed during the renewed cessation of hostilities in September primarily due to challenges related to the non-issuance of official clearances,” he said. “The convoy that was attacked in Urm al-Kubra on September 19 had the required clearances … The UN decided, following the tragic incident, to temporarily suspend aid convoys to hard-to-reach and besieged areas.” 

The bombed convoy was trying to reach eastern Aleppo. There were about 30 vehicles in all, smashed by air bombardment, 18 of them totally destroyed. At least 20 aid workers, drivers and volunteers died. The US and the UN have all blamed the Russians, citing the kind of precision weapons used as the evidence that it was neither the Syrian government nor the rebels. No aid has been delivered to rebel-held parts of Aleppo since. 

Another foreign aid worker based on the Turkish-Syrian border, who did not want to be identified, told The Saturday Paper: “Foreign workers cannot enter Syria nor work inside.” She described conditions for her local colleagues, who do work inside Syria: “No area can now be considered safe and our offices in ‘quieter’ areas had to relocate several times because of increased bombings. The situation is indeed deteriorating very dramatically and very quickly, as seen in the news … The last few months have been terrible in all areas: we relocated offices because of an increase in violence, got some colleagues injured, lost schools, children and teachers, and a hospital we support was hit.” 

That is in the quieter areas, but what of the situation in besieged eastern Aleppo, which the government forces, backed by Russian air power, seem determined to wipe out? Local reporters, including Karam al-Masri, keep the world informed with reports such as this, filed to Agence France-Presse on September 25: “With pools of blood and shredded bodies on the streets, the rebel-held east of Syrian city Aleppo has been reduced to an apocalyptic battlefront under relentless regime and Russian bombardment. Doctors at one of the last functioning hospitals said they were being forced to carry out swift amputations just to keep survivors alive.

“‘This morning alone we had 60 wounded come in,’ said Ahmed, a doctor who asked not to be fully identified out of fear for his life and for the hospital under persistent bombing and air strikes since
a new offensive was unleashed …

“‘Many of the wounded are dying before our eyes – we’re helpless,’ added the doctor, circled by men and children stretched out in pain on the floor.”

Karam’s story is universal for residents of eastern Aleppo. He initially supported the uprising against Assad in 2011, when he was not quite 20 years old. He started filming and taking photos. He was imprisoned first by government forces, then imprisoned by Daesh forces who moved in to the rebel-held enclave. While he was being held by them and threatened with decapitation for working for foreigners – one of his colleagues was decapitated, and the footage was shown to him with the warning he’d be next – his parents were killed by a barrel bomb dropped by the government on their apartment block. Karam writes about being hungry, about the windows and doors of his apartment being blasted out by bombs. All the while, he continues to file his reports through the AFP office in Beirut. 

The daily butcher’s bill of what is happening to his home town, that we read in the small briefs in our news, come from people such as him: “The massacres and the bombings have become normal, along with images of children under rubble, the injured, bodies torn to pieces. I’ve gotten used to it, not like before. At the end of 2012, during the first massacre, when I saw a man with his leg torn off, I felt ill and I fainted at the sight of blood, because it was the first time. Now it’s something normal to me.”

Foreign journalists covered the initial uprisings in Syria but many left after the targeted killings of high-profile journalist Marie Colvin and her photographer, Remi Ochlik, in Homs in 2012, when a government artillery strike ranged in on her satellite phone signal, and the killing of journalist hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines in 2014. 

News organisations rely on local journalists to cover the ongoing carnage, which they do in meticulous detail. These are their communities, friends and families being destroyed, and they document and film it. No one can say the international community does not know what is happening. Foreign reporters do occasionally get through to government-controlled western Aleppo. One of the latest was the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen and his Australian cameraman Nik Millard. He reported the same civilian casualties on the other side of the lines in September: “The first was a boy of eight called Hani Jadid. He was lying on a trolley outside Aleppo university hospital. The day was hot and all he was dressed in was a disposable nappy. A tube came out of it leading to a plastic bag to collect his urine. His right arm was gone, amputated above the elbow. The stump had been heavily wrapped in new, cream-coloured bandages, like both his legs.” 

Millard describes reporting in Aleppo: “I was in Aleppo about two weeks ago, arriving the day before the ceasefire came into effect … It is a charred and battle-scarred urban landscape which winds through a perimeter of destroyed factories and apartment blocks, before opening out into the relatively intact busy heart of what was once the country’s economic hub and most populous city… Our movements were tightly controlled by the Syrian government… It was impossible for us to reach eastern Aleppo, which aid agencies describe as a far more desperate parallel universe.” 

Millard summed up the mood in government-held areas: “Overall, I would say the mood was one of war weariness and pessimism. Few Syrians we spoke to believed that the war would end any time soon. Most recognise that their country has become a battleground for regional and geopolitical rivalries, in which foreign powers are fighting in Syria to pursue their own agendas.”

The siege of eastern Aleppo today is like Stalingrad or Dresden. But it is playing out in front of the world on Snapchat, on Twitter, on WhatsApp. We can see the carnage unfold, but aside from increasingly strong statements and the commitment of funds to aid we can’t deliver, the international community continues to bomb those we perceive are our enemies. The Russians continue to bomb theirs – some of whom we, as part of the US-led coalition, support. And the civilians who can’t flee, they continue to die.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "Deadly Syria". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.