Sheer terror and unbearable suffering has forced many civilians in Aleppo to eke out an existence underground to escape the relentless aerial bombardment of opposition-held areas by government forces, according to a new report published by Amnesty International.
“Death Everywhere:” War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Aleppo details the horrendous war crimes and other abuses being committed in the city by government forces and armed opposition groups on a daily basis, and concludes that some of the government’s actions in Aleppo amount to crimes against humanity.
The report paints a particularly distressing picture of the devastation and bloodshed caused by barrel bombs - packed with explosives and metal fragments - which have been dropped by government forces on schools, hospitals, mosques and crowded markets. Many hospitals and schools have sought safety by moving into basements or underground bunkers.
“Widespread atrocities, in particular the vicious and unrelenting aerial bombardment of civilian neighborhoods by government forces, have made life for civilians in Aleppo increasingly unbearable. These reprehensible and continual strikes on residential areas point to a policy of deliberately and systematically targeting civilians in attacks that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
“By relentlessly and deliberately targeting civilians the Syrian government appears to have adopted a callous policy of collective punishment against the civilian population of Aleppo.”
Barrel bomb attacks by government forces
Attacks using barrel bombs - oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders packed with explosives, fuel, and metal fragments dropped from helicopters - killed more than 3,000 civilians in Aleppo governorate last year, and more than 11,000 in Syria since 2012. Last month local activists recorded at least 85 barrel bomb attacks in Aleppo city that killed at least 110 civilians. Yet the Syrian government has failed to acknowledge a single civilian casualty caused by such attacks, with President Bashar al-Assad categorically denying that barrel bombs had ever been used by his forces in a media interview in February 2015.
Survivors of the eight barrel bomb attacks documented in this report described harrowing scenes of carnage in the aftermath of the explosions making clear the true horror of these attacks.
“I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It was how I imagine hell to be,” a local factory worker said describing the aftermath of an attack on al-Fardous neighborhood in 2014. A local surgeon said the level of injuries he had seen caused by barrel bombs was unprecedented: “Barrel bombs are the most horrible and hurtful weapon…[We deal with] multi-trauma, so many amputations, intestines out of the body, it’s too horrible,” he said.
One barrel bomb attack struck a crowded market in the Sukkari neighborhood in June 2014 while 150 people were waiting in line to receive food baskets from a humanitarian distribution point nearby. An eyewitness described the aftermath of the attack as “pure horror,” saying the attack had targeted civilians:
“There was the man who ran the ice-cream shop, the man who ran the sandwich shop, the man who ran the toy store... They were all killed,” he said.
The report also details the terrifying ordeal for civilians living in the shadow of this deadly and persistent threat.
“There is no sun, no fresh air, we can’t go upstairs and there are always airplanes and helicopters in the sky,” said one doctor whose field hospital is among those forced underground.
“We are always nervous, always worried, always looking to the sky,” a teacher from Aleppo told Amnesty International.
Another resident described Aleppo as “the circle of hell:” “The streets are filled with blood. The people who have been killed are not the people who were fighting,” he said.