The war for Aleppo had stayed far enough away from their home in the centre of the city for Umm Khaled and her family to hope that, somehow, they could survive it unscathed, The Guardian reports. That changed one week ago when bombs, which had long been directed away from Aleppo’s ancient heart and the totemic citadel nearby, crashed into the building next to them.
“We were eating dinner,” said Khaled inside a tent in a Turkish refugee camp where she and 17 other relatives arrived on Tuesday. “Then the bombs hit. Dust, concrete, steel fell on the meal in front of us. “That’s when we knew we had to leave.”
Khaled and her family are among the few of nearly 30,000 refugees who fled Aleppo and the countryside to the north who have made it to Turkey. The rest have spent the past week camped out near the border gates, most too poor to even contemplate the 10-hour trek across the mountains for which Khaled’s family members each paid $500.
The family spoke of a city that had already disintegrated before the Russian blitz launched during international peace talks two weeks ago, and which since has become one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Stalking the edges of the city and the ruined towns nearby are a myriad of forces with disparate loyalties which are now more difficult to comprehend or navigate than at any point during the war.
With Russia agreeing with the US to aim for a cessation of hostilities starting in one week, the few opposition groups that remain inside the city say that by then little will be left to fight for. And, in any event, there is little faith within an exhausted opposition that world powers can orchestrate a political outcome while military muscle is prevailing.
“The regime is advancing quite quickly,” said Bahar al-Halabi, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) member inside Aleppo. “It is an obvious collaboration between the regime, the Kurds and the Russians. Now we have to fight three giants at the same time. We have very little left. Nothing can change things now. I can’t lie and say that the position of the FSA is strong.
“The regime is not interested in a political solution unless they get everything they want on the ground. They might agree to a ceasefire, but they will use it to surround us.”
All those who fled Aleppo and made it to Turkey spoke of a sense of defeat and abandonment. “We have been warning of this day for two years,” said Ahmed Othman, another new arrival in the camp, one hour south of the Turkish city of Sanliurfa. “No one listened. And that’s because no one cared.”
Khaled and her family started their journey last Monday, first leaving the old city of Aleppo, then driving past the citadel, which had withstood 3,000 years of fighting and insurrection but now teeters under the strain of this withering war.
Just to the west of the old city, which acts as a demarcation line between the rebel east and areas held by the regime, life goes on with relative normality. Aleppo is a tale of two cities – one half ravaged, the other still functioning and under no threat from fighter jets.
Almost all the new exodus has come from the few neighbourhoods that had remained inhabitable in the east, or the countryside that spills towards Turkey. Russian and Syrian jets do not stray to the west, although rockets fired from the opposition side sometimes thud randomly into its suburbs.
The family drove north out of the ruined eastern half of the city, which had been decimated by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian helicopters long before the Russian jets arrived. Not one hospital remains standing in east Aleppo, which has been a stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition since mid-2012. Most of its bakeries have been destroyed. So too its electricity supply and schools.
The exodus took them through an industrial area that was once the heartbeat of Syria’s economy but is now a wasteland of rubble, charred cars and bomb craters. The Guardian has used the same route during more than 10 visits to Aleppo since July 2012. It remains the only lifeline out of the eastern half, but with pro-Assad militias, led by Hezbollah, now mounting their most concerted push to close the gap, remaining rebels fear they will be besieged by the time the mooted ceasefire starts.
“Every time we saw a checkpoint, whether it was the FSA, jihadis, Hezbollah, or anyone else, we went 10km around it,” said Khaled’s nephew Abu Ihab. “The diversions got us to the border, then we all had to pay the smuggler. Everyone except the children.
“We were never sure who was with us, or who was against us. So we took no risks. It was lawless. And it was lethal.”
Along the way, jets cut arcs through a pale sky above, in formations the family had not seen in the years that Syrian regime jets had been attacking them. The same jet streams were visible from southern Turkey, where border guards have zealously patrolled crossing points and mountain trails. “It was a Russian bomb that hit us,” said Abu Ihab. “They were flying five or six at a time, bombing everything that was still standing.
“We walked up the mountain another 10 hours. All the way we were terrified. If the Turks saw us, they would have shot us.”
Medics in the Syrian town of Azaz say they have treated more than 10 people for gunshot wounds caused by border guards at the nearby crossing. Turkey has vowed to send aid across the frontier to men, women and children camped out in olive groves and in nearby buildings. Tens of thousands of Syria’s newest refugees remain trapped in the area.
In Azaz, a spokesman for the FSA, Mohammed al-Sheikh, said talk of a ceasefire was being widely derided within what remains of the group’s ranks. “I don’t believe in it and I don’t care about it,” he said. “The regime has never sounded genuine about a ceasefire. No one believes it. Talking about a ceasefire has become a routine. But it’s a useless process.”