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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Paroles de calvaire dans les quartiers détruits d’Alep

by Pierre Barbancey

Words From Calvary, From the Devastated Quarters of Alep

Translated Tuesday 5 April 2016, by Henry Crapo, Isabelle Métral

The second most important city in Syria was taken over during the rebellion in the summer of 2012 by armed groups, many of which were Islamist radicals. They have been driven back by a terrible offensive of the Syrian army. The local inhabitants now tell their story.

Athria, Aleppo (Syria), by special envoy.

Sitting at his desk in a house converted into a command center in the region of Athria, to the east of Homs, General Mohammad suddenly throws a terrible fit of anger. In rage, he throws down his walkie-talkie. His face, jovial some minutes earlier, is suddenly transformed. He must handle a jihadist attack that has just occurred a few kilometers away. Athria is in fact a triple point. A critical location because it permits the routing of food convoys from Damascus, The direct highway is still cut west of Homs, and vehicles must make a detour through the desert to reach Aleppo, the largest city in northern Syria.

The situation is tense, as evidenced by the activity of soldiers

Pointing to a commander’s map pinned to the wall, the senior officer of the Syrian Arab army described the situation. To the west, the Al-Nusra Front and al-Fatah Jaich, which hold an area stretching north from Homs to the south of Aleppo. To the east, Daech, which controls this part of the country up to its stronghold of Raqqa. The situation is tense, as evidenced by the activity of the soldiers, by strengthened positions on the roads and on the adjoining hills, as well as the tanks in position, Grad missile ramps and boxes of ammunition stored behind earthen mounds. "The government and French media can say what they want, but we are here facing Daech and the al-Nosra Front , we fight without mercy," the general’s aide insists, while, from the terrace of the house, he shows the surroundings and indicates the positions, with the jihadists in the distance . "We have killed many terrorists. Among them, many foreigners, especially Tunisians and Kuwaitis. They are drugged and many had their feet tied with telephone cables to prevent them from leaving the position, and they wore vests of explosives. "

Further north, toward the small town of Khanasser, or rather what remains of it, as the place is a field of ruins, Colonel Yasser, who has come to inspect a position, explains that Daech and the Al-Nusra Front are coordinating their attacks to try to take the hills that roll like waves toward Raqqa, and to allow them fully to control the only passable road still open for travel to Aleppo. "It was February 29", he said. "A second attack. They brought tanks by truck. Each tank, including a US Abrams, was covered by three pickup equipped with anti-aircraft machine guns, to prevent our aircraft from hitting them. At Khanasser, they first attacked us with BMD traps, and their fighters unleashed heavy fire before the tanks fired." On the hillside, we effectively see tanks of the Syrian army destroyed by Daech using TOW, US anti-tank missiles supplied by the Saudis. "We’ve nevertheless pushed them back," says the officer, who notes that "the last attack took place two days before the truce. The goal was clear: al-Nosra and Daech wanted to install Jaich al-Fatah in the sector. This group is supposed to have approved the cease-fire, so we would not have the right to fight them." At that time, the jihadis were still within 10 km. "We expanded the area we control to 25 km of the road," said Gen. Mohammad, "preventing some al-Nosra groups from crossing the lines to join Daech, as we have heard by intercepting their communications. We will begin the second stage east of Athria. Finally, we will define a safety zone of 50 km to the east and west." His sentence barely over, he jumps into a jeep and heads to the front lines, where clashes have resumed.

We also hit the road, but to Aleppo in the north. Trucks follow, filled with food, and trucks bring entire families who will find their villages cleared of Islamists, and military vehicles pass one another dangerously, ... Aleppo ... finally!

We head toward the neighborhood of Salaheddine, a theater of fierce fighting when the Syrian army retook it in July 2012, after twenty days of occupation by rebel groups. The facades are destroyed, and sections of wall are just waiting to collapse. The main entries to Salaheddine entries were obstructed by bus or car bodies, to prevent any infiltration. Life resumes somehow, in a precarious way. At the end of the quarter, vast curtains were erected to prevent sniper fire because the border area, part of Salaheddine, is still held by armed groups. From a balcony, residents warn us to be careful. At the small military post installed and protected by sandbags, a weeping woman begs the soldiers to let go "the other side". Her house is on the front line, and she wants to return. Strange as it may seem, she will pass "the other side". What will happen to her?

In the middle of rutted streets, crossed with many electric wires, which weave a crazy cobweb, children continue to play as if nothing was happening. We see them also carry painfully heavy water containers. "My 9 year old son was shot in the lung," says Safouane, delivery driver, who remembers the arrival of the rebels. "They came in the night, the first day of Ramadan in 2012. They immediately arrested four people, officials, tied their hands, threw them in a trash can, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire. Those to whom I spoke said they belonged to the group Liwa al-Tawhid (initially linked to the Free Syrian Army before joining the Islamic Front, said to be moderate and advocating the creation of a freely elected "Islamic state" - Ed), but they divvied up the blocks of houses. There were Syrians but also foreigners. When they wanted something, an object (or even a woman) they laid their hands on on it, saying three times "Allahu akbar" and carried it off. Many women have been kidnapped." Like many, Safouane returned to Salaheddine after the intervention of the army. An intervention that was not accomplished with kid gloves. The area was badly shelled. But of this, they do not speak, perhaps reluctant to speak of it because of the "guide" who accompanies us. Perhaps also because the most important thing to him and his family is to find a home and to feel more in security. No one, moreover, will talk about the first manifestations (later in Aleppo than in the rest of the country) nor do they agree to talk about political issues, with the exception of a trader, Hamad, which assures us that "there is need for reform, for sure, but with President Bashar. " Safouane prefers to say, "Now we live quietly, but we don’t know when the sniper will shoot or when one of their homemade rockets will fall. "

Mustafa Allouache is not more forthcoming than others on the situation. Originally from al Bab, near the airport, he owes his survival to sheer luck. "One morning we woke up and everything had changed. Checkpoints were set up, run by bearded guys. They also placed IEDs on roadsides. My brother was killed, my five sisters carried off by Daech. The imam of the mosque was with the rebels. The previous Friday, he emphasized the need for everyone to take up arms and fight with our brothers," he says. For him, "whether Daech, al-Nosra or other groups, they are all identical. They all have the same strategy: kill, kidnap, kill. For this, they bought people."

The government controls 70% of the cities and 50% of countryside.

According to an official, the government now controls 70% of the cities and 50% of countryside, where the rebels are still well established. For three months now, there has been no water in Aleppo. Ever since Daech troops took control of the water tanks of the Maskanee station. UNICEF does distribute water, but not in sufficient quantity. The people must therefore buy it - if they can afford it! Strange though, while walking in the streets of the city, to see that life has resumed. Especially since the cease-fire. Families come out and walk in the gardens, the restaurants are full and the few sounds of mortars that one can sporadically hear are not really frightening. This is, however, a misleading impression. The university city of Aleppo has been requisitioned by the authorities to accommodate the displaced. They are 33 000 persons to separate and lodge in twenty buildings, and 90% of them are even from Aleppo. "They have been there for four years," insists Katnaji Hassan, the director of the center that receives us in front of a portrait of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian flag and that of the Baath Party. "We thought we would provide a home for them for a fortnight, but terrorism increased in Aleppo and they stayed there." Every day, every family receives a bag of bread. A health center and psychological support has been installed. Schools for children 6 to 12 years were opened, but, by the admission of Hassan Katnaji, "it is not enough, so we try to spread the others in the surrounding establishments." It is in one of these student rooms (9 m2) we met these families, packed in six or eight to a room, with features drawn. Alya Ahmed and Khir are two among them. Their story is like that of others. The rebels entered the city of Hananou, east of Aleppo, at the time of Ramadan in 2012, claiming to be in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). "Our neighbor, whom we helped yet regularly because he did not have much money, denounced us by saying that we were working for the government." She is a midwife, he, a worker in a state factory. "The rebels asked constantly if there were Kurds, Shiites or Christians and kept talking of religion to people."

My apologies for the delay in translation of this remarkable article, which appeared in l’Humanité on 15 March. HC

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