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Flight from Aleppo, Syria: Bodies, shelling and chaos

July 31, 2012 |  1:28 pm

A loaded vehicle in Aleppo, Syria
BHAMDOUN, Lebanon -- The bodies of soldiers were strewn along the airport road. Gasoline was not available or was prohibitively expensive.  A catastrophic battle loomed between armed rebels and government forces. It was time to get out of Aleppo, Syria.

“It was very bad,” said an Aleppo businessman who escaped with his family to Lebanon, one of thousands of Syrians of varied economic backgrounds who have fled their strife-ridden homeland in recent weeks.

Many are hesitant to speak publicly, fearing the long arm of President Bashar Assad’s secret police. The Aleppo businessman, who says he owns a pair of factories, asked to be identified only as Ayman.

He agreed to speak in this Lebanese mountain town, where many wealthy and middle-class Syrians have fled as violence has battered both Aleppo and Damascus, the Syrian capital. Syrian-registered SUVs and luxury sedans line the streets outside the inconspicuous hotel where Ayman was staying with his family.

He described a scenario of gathering chaos in Aleppo, previously insulated from the violence that has raged for more than a year in Syria’s provinces. Clashes and chaos increased as rebels infiltrated into city neighborhoods.

“There is no traffic police and no garbage collectors,” said Ayman, in his mid-40s, dressed in light blue track pants and a T-shirt, as he fiddled with his cellphone in the hotel lobby. “Cars were driving in the wrong direction near Saadallah al-Jaberi Square. The police are sitting inside police stations and don’t open the door.”

It all became too much, he said, when  government troops recently took up positions near his family’s affluent suburb and started firing at suspected rebels. Last week, Ayman found six large bullet holes in his villa.

Among those fleeing, Ayman said, were plainclothes government enforcers known as shabiha. The opposition circulated photos of suspected Aleppo-based shabiha on Facebook, a not so thinly veiled threat.

With the routes to nearby Turkey engulfed in battle, Ayman decided to leave via Damascus, more than 200 miles to the south. Driving that far was out of the question, he said, noting that armed thieves now stalk the route, on the lookout for people fleeing with money.

The family, including his wife and two young sons, left Aleppo last Thursday, Ayman said, going by car to the airport, still under government control. The once-busy airport road was deserted. The bodies of at least five government soldiers were seen  on the highway.

Once safely at the airport, the family caught a flight to the capital, where government troops were mopping up after a weeklong rebel offensive.

In Damascus,  the family found a driver who charged $300 for the ride to the Lebanese border and up the mountains to  Bhamdoun, about a two-hour trip. The Damascus-Beirut highway remains one of the few relatively safe routes out of the country.

It has been conventional wisdom that Aleppo’s Sunni Muslim merchant class has stood behind Assad, who, until the uprising began nearly a year and a half ago, could argue that his government had provided stability. But Ayman says no one in his circle of merchant friends still supports the government. The military strategy of shelling districts judged as anti-Assad has disgusted former government backers, he said.

“Even those who were with the regime saw how the shells are falling randomly,” Ayman said.

But many merchants have kept their mouths shut out of fear, he added. Shabiha  burned down the factories of several businessmen who openly proclaimed their support for the opposition, Ayman said. Shabiha have also been linked to kidnappings of wealthy Aleppo residents.

For his part, Ayman said, he had never attended antigovernment protests. He added that there were good people with the rebel Free Syrian Army, including doctors and professionals.

As the rebels fight for control of Aleppo, Ayman fears government troops will implement a scorched-earth policy in a desperate bid to retake the strategically crucial city. Aleppo could be destroyed. But Assad cannot afford to lose the nation’s commercial hub, and his forces will fight fiercely to maintain control, he said.

 “The game is over,” Ayman said, “if Aleppo falls.”

For now, he says, he and his family plan to pass the remainder of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in the cool Lebanese mountains. Whether the fate of Aleppo will be known by Eid al-Fitr, when the fasting ends, remains a question mark, for Ayman and all Syrians.


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Photo: A vehicle loaded with household goods flees a district in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday, July 29, 2012. Credit: Pierre Torres / AFP / Getty Images