Now that rescue and medical operations have all but ceased in the rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, many of the estimated 150,000 civilians left there can hope only for a quick end.
“People are praying for death rather than injury,” said Tahany Alikaaj, a teacher and mother of two young daughters. “Everyone is saying: ‘God willing if a shell hits me, it won’t just wound me, it will kill me there and then, because there is no one to rescue me.’”
A barrel bomb struck a building in one rebel-held neighborhood on Friday, trapping six members of one family under the rubble. After a neighbor heard their calls for help and saw one woman’s hands sticking out, he sent out panicked messages on WhatsApp pleading for anyone with a rescue vehicle or other tools to come.
After an hour with no sign of any help, the neighbor sent out a final, desperate plea: “These people need a bullet of mercy. God needs to kill these people out of mercy.”
The woman and her baby son were eventually pulled out of the rubble by hand. The rest of the family died under the debris of their home.
Similar scenes of death and destruction are proliferating in what is left of rebel-held Aleppo as rebels await the government’s response to their proposal to evacuate all civilians who want to escape.
Already, the civilians left in the rebel-held parts of Syria’s largest city face an excruciating dilemma: abandon their homes, maybe forever, or succumb in place to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The humanitarian situation in their neighborhoods is growing more dire by the day under the most intense air bombardment by the regime and its Russian allies since the battle for Aleppo began in 2012. Hundreds of men have been reported missing after fleeing the rebel-held part of the city last week into regime-controlled areas, a senior United Nations official said Friday, increasing the sense of fear and despair among civilians and rebels.
With almost the entire fleet of ambulances and rescue vehicles destroyed by airstrikes, people have resorted to transporting the injured and dead on vegetable carts—largely unused since a siege imposed in July cut off supplies of produce and other food.
Even those who make it to hospitals find them already teeming with wounded people, many of whom die for lack of medical care, said Mohammad al-Zein, a medical administrator in the city.
“Death is a thousand times more merciful than being wounded,” he said.
Rebels put out their proposal on Wednesday for the safe evacuation through humanitarian corridors of hundreds of wounded people and all civilians who want to leave. The Syrian government and Russia haven’t yet responded, but have said previously they wouldn’t accept any deal that doesn’t include the full withdrawal of all rebels in the city.
‘Death is a thousand times more merciful than being wounded.’
The U.N. on Friday accused some rebel groups of preventing civilians from leaving. Multiple residents denied this, saying tens of thousands last week used the only available option to flee the bombardment, running across dangerous front lines in hope of reaching regime-controlled neighborhoods.
Safety isn’t guaranteed there, either. A senior U.N. official said hundreds of men are reported missing after fleeing last week into regime-controlled areas as government forces pressed an offensive and took more than two-thirds of the neighborhoods once under rebel control.
“Given the terrible record of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances by the Syrian government, we are of course deeply concerned about the fate of these individuals,” Rupert Colville, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Friday.
The U.N. has also received reports of regime reprisals against civilians who are suspected of supporting rebels, he said.
Hundreds of antigovernment activists, doctors and others the regime sees as opponents fear torture and execution if they are forced to evacuate eastern parts of Aleppo. That feeds a strong reluctance to flee, despite the unbearable living conditions in rebel areas.
Last week in the moments after regime mortar attacks killed more than 40 civilians trying to flee to government areas, a man stood near the bodies of his family members in orange body bags.
“We fled from the shelling and from the hunger, my children were exhausted,” he said. “But I was moving one step forward and 10 steps back. I didn’t want to leave, but what can we do? I have a wife who is like no one in all of Aleppo. Now she’s gone. What do I do?”