AMMAN: When a cacophony of mortars and gunfire erupted just outside Jalal al-Halabi’s home on Tuesday, he knew that it was time to pack his things and leave.
“The shelling was coming from every direction,” al-Halabi—a lifelong resident of al-Hamadaniya, a regime-controlled, west Aleppo district—told Syria Direct on Thursday.
“There was no rhyme or reason to it all. The shooting didn’t distinguish between civilians and rebel fighters…we had to get out of there.”
The shooting al-Halabi described is coming from fierce street battles as regime forces try to drive back rebels who have literally arrived on their doorstep. On Sunday, the rebel Victory Army broke through a weak link along the southwest Aleppo city perimeter to arrive 4km west of rebel-controlled (and now blockaded east Aleppo) and at the southern section of Hamadaniya, where they are now.
The rebels now hold small sections of the district, but it was not immediately clear how much because of the fluidity of the fighting over meters of turf.
Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Thursday that “terrorists launched a number of RPGs and sniper fire in al-Hamadaniya and other residential Aleppo neighborhoods.”
Aleppo City’s al-Hamadaniya District in June 2011. Photo courtesy of Men and Women of Hamdaniyeh.
Pro-opposition Smart News reported “the al-Hamadaniya district in Aleppo witnessed the displacement of residents on Tuesday as a result of nearby clashes between regime and rebel forces.”
Caught between the battles and with water and electricity cut off, an unknown number of residents has fled since Sunday, pinched between rebel-regime clashes and frustrated with the government’s inability to guarantee security.
“My family and I left our home…because there came a point where we felt as if we were in the middle of the fighting,” said Jalal al-Halabi from the nearby regime-held district of Furqan. “I no longer have confidence in the Syrian army.”
Some residents say they worry that the rebel Victory Army—an alliance led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (previously known as Jabhat a-Nusra prior to the group’s July 28 split from Al-Qaeda)—will treat residents of this regime-held district as agents of Assad.
“We’re afraid that the rebels will consider us loyalists to the regime,” Abu Ahmed, a Hamadaniyeh resident who has not fled, told Syria Direct on Thursday. “Though we may support Assad, it doesn’t mean that we have any desire to get involved in this conflict.”
Abu Ahmed says he will not leave.
“Through six years of this revolution, I have taken care of this home. I’m not about to abandon it now and leave it to the looters and thieves,” he said.
“My family can’t bear the sounds of the explosions and gunfire; my daughter screams out in sheer terror,” he said.
“We’re simple people. We don’t want to leave our homes. We simply want to stay on our land without dying.”
This is not the first time where concerns of stealing have afflicted west Aleppo. In 2015, reports emerged of pro-regime militias intentionally spreading rumors of rebel advances in order to loot the homes of fleeing families in the al-Khalidiye district, also in west Aleppo.
Pro-regime militias “are randomly firing weapons and terrorizing civilians in al-Hamadaniye and surrounding areas under the pretense of fighting terrorists,” Shadi Halwi, a correspondent with Syrian state television, wrote on his Facebook page Monday. “The goal is a repeat of the al-Khalidiye scenario last year.”
It is a scenario that Jamal al-Halabi decided not to risk. “Screw the regime,” he said. “Half of Aleppo is encircled and dying while the other half is fleeing from death, not even knowing where it’s coming from.”
As soon as the rebels reach our doorsteps, al-Halabi says, “the army will be the first ones to flee.”