AMMAN: Rescuers in rebel-held east Aleppo took advantage of a slight lessening in the pace of Russian and regime airstrikes on Sunday to search for survivors in the rubble on the third day of “the most violent bombing” on the city in more than five years of war.
“So far today, the pace of the bombings is slower,” Ammar Selmou the director of the Aleppo Civil Defense told Syria Direct Sunday. As of 3pm, 12 air raids on east Aleppo neighborhoods had killed 10 people and injured 30, he said.
“This has given us a chance to pull out those who’ve been trapped in the rubble for the last two days,” which saw more than 200 people reported killed in east Aleppo.
The Syrian Arab Army announced a new offensive against Aleppo city’s rebel-held east on Thursday, warning an estimated 250,000 residents there to “stay away from terrorist headquarters and positions.”
The following day, Russian and regime aircraft began an intense bombing campaign against the rebel-held neighborhoods.
Since Friday, opposition media and residents say Russian and regime warplanes carried out hundreds of airstrikes with cluster munitions, barrel bombs, vacuum missiles, and incendiary weapons.
A wounded man after a reported airstrike on the al-Ansari neighborhood on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.
Residents and rescue workers say that the warplanes currently striking east Aleppo are also using bunker busters, bombs that penetrate deep into the ground on impact before exploding to destroy targets under the surface.
Aleppo Civil Defense head Selmou said the “shape and destructive power” of the bombs used in Aleppo in recent days was new to him. “They destroy the underground shelters and shake the neighboring buildings, causing them to collapse,” he said.
“The apparent systematic use of these types of indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas may amount to war crimes,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in an online statement on Saturday, referring to the reported use of bunker busters and incendiary weapons like thermite and white phosphorous.
“When any new weapon is used, we feel the difference immediately,” Hanaa al-Qassab, an east Aleppo resident and the head the Syrian Women’s Association based there told Syria Direct on Sunday. “These feel like an earthquake, the whole building shakes.”
“This is the most violent bombing of Aleppo city,” said Bashar Abu al-Laith, a journalist in regime-blockaded east Aleppo. “It’s complete annihilation.”
The Syrian regime says it is targeting terrorist groups in Aleppo. Syrian state media agency SANA has not reported on recent bombings, but did report regime advances north of the city over the weekend.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Saturday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem asserted “our belief in victory is even greater now that the Syrian Arab Army is making great strides in its war against terrorism,” underscoring the importance of “true friends of the Syrian people,” like Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
In response to rising violence in Aleppo, the United Nations Security Council was scheduled to meet on Sunday morning in New York in a meeting requested by the United Kingdom, France and the United States.
SANA’s English-language twitter account—which has not mentioned the bombings—tweeted a video of a summer dance party in west Aleppo on Sunday, writing that the city “still boasts a thriving nightlife.”
Russian state news agency TASS has mentioned the regime’s Aleppo offensive, but not mentioned the involvement of Russian warplanes or reported civilian casualties in the city.
‘More than we can handle’
The massive three-day assault has overwhelmed east Aleppo’s already-depleted medical and rescue infrastructure.
Only 30 remaining doctors are currently serving 250,000 people in east Aleppo, the Syrian American Medical Society reported on Friday.
“There are hundreds of injured people in the streets, in dangerous condition, some of them are being treated there,” Alaa al-Halabi, a citizen journalist in east Aleppo told Syria Direct on Sunday. “Others are moved to small houses serving as field hospitals. Those are overflowing too, with the dead and injured.”
A medical facility in east Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Ryad Alhussen.
Videos posted online by the Civil Defense show chaotic scenes from hospitals overwhelmed with more wounded people than they can handle, people lying—some unconscious—on bloodstained floors as doctors cut the clothes from their bodies.
“We’re working all day and night,” Jumaa Arab, who runs an independent ambulance network in east Aleppo told Syria Direct on Sunday. “We are always on high alert so we can cover the massacres, which are more than we can handle.”
Complicating matters, the rubble from collapsed buildings has rendered many streets impassable. “We have to get out of the car and carry the wounded on stretchers, walking across the rubble,” said Arab. It takes longer to get the wounded to hospitals, and hurts their chances of survival.
“What is happening in Aleppo today cannot be described as suffering,” he said. “It is so much more than that word.”
‘Death at any moment’
After five years of risking death, not even the latest bloodbath is enough to keep east Aleppo residents at home or in bomb shelters, multiple residents told Syria Direct.
“People don’t go down to the underground shelters anymore,” Hmeid Yousef a-Zain, a father of five living in east Aleppo told Syria Direct. “We’ve gotten used to it.”
“The weapons have diversified, but the fate is the same: death.”
Even in recent days, residents leave their homes, go to work, and buy what they can from the markets, if they can afford it.
“We live waiting for death at any moment,” resident and women’s activist Hanaa al-Qassab told Syria Direct. “I go out to work and walk over the rubble every morning, maybe over the bodies buried beneath it. Every day the streets and neighborhoods look different.”
Al-Bab al-Sharqi road in Aleppo on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Media Center.
“I go to work, and I don’t know if I will come back and see my family again.”
During the day, people work. But at night, sitting with their families, death draws closer.
“People sit in their homes, dying every time you hear the sound of a plane,” said al-Qassab. “You think, maybe now it’s our turn. And then comes the pitch-black night, making the scene even more horrifying.”
“Aleppo is like a cancer patient,” said father a-Zain. “The disease has spread into the entire body, but he keeps resisting it even though he knows he will die in the end.”
Coinciding with the bombings, the public water network serving nearly two million people in both regime- and rebel-held Aleppo neighborhoods is completely shut down for a third day on Sunday.
Two pre-dawn airstrikes damaged the rebel-held Bab al-Nayrab water pumping station serving 250,000 people in east Aleppo, putting it out of service on Friday.
In response, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) shut down the Suleiman al-Halabi water station that provided water to Aleppo’s regime-held west.
“Shutting down the Suleiman al-Halabi plant was a basic response,” Abu Hudhayfah al-Halabi, a worker at the Bab al-Nayrab station, which is also controlled by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, told Syria Direct on Sunday.The closure was both in retaliation for the strike and “to pressure the regime to negotiate, because Fatah a-Sham is in dire need of fuel.”
On previous occasions, the Syrian regime provided Nusra-run water pumping stations in Aleppo with diesel fuel in return for the uninterrupted flow of water to the city's western neighborhoods.
UNICEF representative Hanaa Singer warned of the “risk of catastrophic outbreaks of waterborne diseases” as a result of the cutoff, in a statement on Friday.
West Aleppo residents can access water through wells or water tankers, Alaa al-Hajjar, a resident of the regime-held neighborhoods told Syria Direct on Sunday. “Water is distributed at a number of points throughout the city, but these points don’t cover all of west Aleppo,” and well-water is sometimes polluted.
In east Aleppo, water tankers cannot enter from outside the city due to a regime blockade, leaving them with no alternative to unsterilized well water.
“These wells don’t meet the needs of the residents, and this water is not healthy,” said a-Zain. “But people have to drink it. It’s better than nothing.”