This morning Russia’s Defense Minister announced it was coordinating a “humanitarian operation” with safe corridors set up to allow civilians and fighters who lay down their arms to leave Aleppo city, and food and first aid points established outside the city. However, many civilians may be skeptical of the Syrian government’s promises of safety and might choose not to leave for fear of reprisals. The city’s only aid supply route, Castello Road, has been cut off by Syrian government sniper fire and heavy shelling since 7 July.
“For years the Syrian government has blocked crucial aid from reaching besieged civilians while subjecting them to the horrors of daily shelling and air strikes, using starvation as a weapon of war and deliberately causing unbearable suffering to those living in opposition-held areas,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program.
“Providing safe routes for those civilians who wish to flee Aleppo city will not avert a humanitarian catastrophe. It is not a substitute for allowing impartial humanitarian relief for civilians who remain in opposition-held areas of the city or other besieged areas, many of whom will be skeptical about government promises.”
Russia’s promises are also likely to be viewed with suspicion by some civilians in Aleppo as its government has carried out unlawful air strikes in opposition-held areas, including possible war crimes, and consistently failed to use its influence with the Syrian government to end widespread human rights violations.
Five local humanitarian organizations told Amnesty International that food reserves in the Aleppo could run out in as little as two weeks’ time, putting civilian lives at risk.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has also warned that food in Aleppo city is expected to run out by mid-August, adding that between 200,000 and 300,000 people are at risk.
Attacks on homes, hospitals and medical facilities in and around Aleppo city by Syrian government forces have also intensified in recent days.
Amnesty International spoke to residents trapped inside Aleppo city as well as 10 doctors and several humanitarian organizations in Syria and Turkey. The testimony gathered paints a deeply desperate picture of what has unfolded over the past 20 days.
‘Road of death’
A humanitarian worker told Amnesty International that Castello Road is now under 24-hour surveillance by the Syrian government and forces of the
Autonomous Administration, led by the Syrian Kurdish political party Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD).
“Anything that moves on the road is attacked,” the humanitarian worker said.
Even in the days before the road was cut off two trucks transporting enough food aid to feed 400 families were attacked.
“All of the items were destroyed. These families rely on aid provided by us. What will these families do when the food reserves are fully depleted?” he said.
A former resident of Aleppo city told Amnesty International how he and his family made a harrowing escape risking their lives to cross Castello Road to travel to Turkey eight days ago.
“My family and I could not bear the sound of warplanes and explosions any more so we decided to leave the city at dawn. The ‘road of death’ [Castello Road] is approximately 500 meters long… The taxi driving a family in front of us was hit by an air strike. The car burst into flames… we couldn’t stop to check if anyone survived. On the way, I saw five human bodies rotting on the side of the road,” he said.
“Hala” (name changed for security reasons), a resident of Aleppo city, told Amnesty International that prices inside the city have doubled in recent days.
“The price of basic food such as sugar and bulghur wheat have doubled. One kilo of sugar now costs around US$13. I cannot afford to buy the very few vegetables available.”
“Hussam”, a resident of Aleppo city and father of two boys, told Amnesty International: “Each morning, my eldest son and I start our day by going to bakeries to find bread. The supply barely meets 30% of the people’s needs. Most of the days we either come back with one loaf of bread or empty-handed.”
Relentless air strikes:
Life in the city has been made even worse by the relentless air strikes and heavy shelling by Syrian government forces. Residents of Aleppo city and doctors told Amnesty International that the city, in particular al-Sakhour, al-Shaar and al-Fardous neighborhoods, have sustained daily aerial attacks over the past 10 days.
“Maen”, a resident of Aleppo city, said: “We wake up to the sound of the bombing and we sleep after burying people who were killed.”
He described how he witnessed an air strike near his home in Bab al-Hadid neighborhood, a residential district of the Old City of Aleppo on 19 July, which destroyed six homes.
“I ran through the smoke to reach the site of the attack. I saw one pregnant woman and her infant boy killed and a nine-year-old girl was also killed. The scene was horrific. Twenty minutes later I heard the sound of a warplane again. We warned people to evacuate the area as quickly as possible. I was able to hide before another strike targeted the exact same place. [Afterwards] I ran back to the site to find a woman whose leg had been instantly severed; her injured daughter of around 12 years old was beside her,” “Maen” said.
The shrapnel from the attack sprayed across a 200m-wide radius, he said, adding that he believed it was a cluster munition attack because he saw the bomb split in the sky and then create a series of small explosions. Cluster munitions are banned under international law and the use of these inherently indiscriminate weapons violates international humanitarian law.
Seven hospitals and medical facilities in Aleppo were attacked by air strikes in the space of 10 days, according to local doctors. Only three hospitals in the city are still functioning and able to provide emergency medical care to injured civilians.
Doctor Abdel Basset, a doctor inside Syria, told Amnesty International that air strikes had damaged two warehouses and partially destroyed medical and food supplies.
A Syrian doctor monitoring the situation from Turkey warned that medical supplies will also soon run out.
“The medical supplies will not last more than two months if the frequency and scale of the strikes continue at the same rate. Some of the injured people are dying from their wounds while waiting in line due to a shortage of staff and lack of functioning hospitals,” he said.
Doctors, humanitarian workers and residents of Aleppo city have told Amnesty International that the deadliest attacks have occurred on populated residential neighborhoods inside the city far away from front lines and military objectives.
International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including hospitals and other medical facilities, and the starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare.
“The Syrian government and its allies have shown an appalling disregard for international humanitarian law and have shamelessly flouted every human rights provision of UN Security Council resolutions adopted on Syria. For its part, the UN Security Council has failed to prioritize the protection of civilians from these horrific violations,” said Philip Luther.
“All states involved in talks on Syria in Geneva, in particular Russia, the Syrian government’s ally, must exert the utmost pressure on them to end their relentless attacks on civilians and civilian objects and allow unhindered access for aid.”
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 99 civilians, including 25 children, 16 women and 58 men, were killed in Aleppo city between 10 July and 23 July by Syrian government forces. Out of the total number of casualties, 14 were recorded as killed on the Castello Road.
In February 2016, Amnesty International published a press release, Syrian and Russian forces targeting hospitals as a strategy of war, which documented what appeared to be the deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities by the Syrian and Russian forces.
In May 2015, Amnesty International released a report, ‘Death everywhere’: War crimes and human rights abuses in Aleppo, which documented relentless barrel bomb attacks and other attacks on civilians by the Syrian government forces in Aleppo.