Ceasefire in Aleppo as eastern half burns, ‘bodies lie where they fell’

AMMAN: East Aleppo opposition forces agreed on Tuesday to a joint Turkish-Russian ceasefire that reportedly stipulates the departure of armed rebels and their families, an east Aleppo rebel military spokesman told Syria Direct.

The deal, which is set to begin Tuesday evening, will pave the way for east Aleppo’s remaining rebel forces to evacuate the city with light weapons and their families, a spokesman with the rebel group Nour a-Din a-Zinki told Syria Direct on Tuesday. It is not yet clear where the unknown number of remaining rebels will be headed or how long the ceasefire will last. 

Scores of rain-soaked corpses lined the streets of east Aleppo on Tuesday as regime forces aimed to capture the final three square kilometers of the provincial capital held by rebels, several sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

Over the past 24 hours, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allied militias captured several residential blocks and reportedly bombed residents attempting to flee the encircled districts to go to regime-held territory.

While icy rain and intermittent thunderstorms largely grounded the Russian and regime warplanes on Tuesday, all of nearly a dozen east Aleppo residents who spoke with Syria Direct expressed fears of the unchecked, unrelenting offensive by Russia and the regime without international accountability. Some of Tuesday’s conversations ended suddenly, interrupted by bombs falling or gunfire ricocheting off apartment buildings.

“We are clinging to life,” Zaaher a-Zaaher, an east Aleppo citizen journalist still inside rebel territory told Syria Direct via social media on Tuesday. “Every moment we are fleeing. We are fleeing from place to place, running from death.”

Another citizen journalist trapped behind the front lines described shells falling and streets littered with intermingled wounded and dead bodies.

“In this moment that I write to you, there are dozens of shells falling on us,” Ahmed a-Najjar told Syria Direct via Facebook. “Corpses are everywhere.”

“I can’t forget what I have seen…lifeless bodies, the sound of children crying out from underneath rubble,” said a-Zaaher. “We left them behind. We had to. What else can I do?”

East Aleppo’s Civil Defense is no longer operating, the group’s spokesman, Ibrahim al-Haj, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. "Bodies lie where they fell," the Syrian Civil Defense tweeted on Monday.

“I can’t give you exact numbers or statistics of the victims,” said al-Haj. “There are corpses everywhere, lining the streets, rotting beneath rubble,” the Civil Defense spokesman said. Monday’s bombings “were the most violent” since the regime offensive began four weeks ago, he added.


 After an airstrike in east Aleppo on Saturday. Photo courtesy of the Aleppo Media Center.

“We can’t possibly bury all of the dead lying in the streets,” Abu Jaafar, director of east Aleppo’s coroner's office, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “People are fleeing from the bombings, the hunger and the cold…we can’t even bury a single body let alone all of the dead who are lining the streets.”

The injured are being moved on carts “that vegetable vendors use,” Abu Taim al-Halabi, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Pro-regime forces have used hundreds of airstrikes, thousands of mortars and near-constant gunfire in their campaign to retake Syria’s second city—the nation’s pre-war industrial capital—for the first time since rebels took control of Aleppo’s eastern half in 2012.

“It’s like the Apocalypse,” said Bishir Hawi, a journalist in east Aleppo. “We can’t comprehend what is happening in the midst of this intense bombing and destruction.”

“Everything that moves is targeted,” said Aleppo Media Center activist al-Halabi. “Even if you do escape the bombing and are able to make it to the regime neighborhoods, what then? There’s widespread fear that the regime’s forces are carrying out mass executions and arrests.”

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged that “we have received reports of pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians (including 11 women and 13 children) in four different neighborhoods.”

“We have also been informed that pro-government forces have been entering civilian homes and killing those individuals found inside,” added Rupert Colville in an online statement on Tuesday.

“Our fate is clear,” Ahmed a-Najjar, an east Aleppo citizen journalist in the rebel-held al-Mashhad district, told Syria Direct. “They want us to surrender or die.” [Read the full interview with a-Najjar here.]

“We chose our path, and we will die with dignity,” said a-Najjar. “If we wanted to leave Aleppo, we would’ve done so a long time ago. We know our fate, and we still reaffirm our decision.”

 East Aleppo residents transport the injured on vegetable carts in November. Photo courtesy of the Aleppo Media Center.

“We accept that we are awaiting our fates,” Mohammad al-Hayek, a citizen journalist in east Aleppo, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “But if our time must come, then we will die while standing, strong and steadfast like trees.”

Still, thousands have fled east Aleppo or at least hope to. An ICRC spokesman currently in Aleppo estimated that 20,000 civilians have been displaced in the last 72 hours. He warns that this is a rough estimate.

“Nobody really knows” the current number of east Aleppo’s displaced, Pawel Krzysiek, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross currently working in west Aleppo, told Syria Direct Tuesday. “We were able to catch up with the first wave of displacement but then the fighting spread further and more people fled.”

“Desperation is when people would rather flee to their deaths than allow the bombs and starvation to come to them,” Ammar Salmou, director of the Aleppo Civil Defense, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Citizen journalist Ahmed a-Najjar said he did not expect to survive Tuesday’s offensive.

“Let us leave with all of our dignity, or leave us to our inevitable fate,” he wrote in his final messages to Syria Direct. The world, he said, “abandoned us and you’ll learn from your mistakes.”

Addressing his fellow Syrians in the opposition, a-Najjar wrote: “Forgive us, because we weren’t able to complete the liberation of Syria with you all.”

Additional reporting by: Celien Baker, Mohammed al-Aseel, Sara Abaid and Malik Hafiz

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.