A glimmer of hope, then back into the nightmare for Aleppo civilians



ALEPPO, SYRIA, Karam al-Masri- In the last rebel-held pocket of Aleppo, residents were bidding a tearful farewell to their battleground city, expecting to evacuate, only to be plunged back into a familiar nightmare.
"Bombing is ongoing, no one can move. Everyone is hiding and terrified. The situation is indescribable," activist Mohammad al-Khatib told AFP on Wednesday from inside the city of northern Syria.



"The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try and retrieve the bodies," he said.
The tiny enclave still held by rebels in the ravaged east of the city had been quiet for hours, after a deal brokered by Turkey and Russia was announced Tuesday to allow civilians and fighters to leave.
Civilians had gathered in the streets from early morning, devastated at the prospect of exile from their city but relieved to finally escape the hell created by years of bombardment and a months-long siege.
But there was no movement, no sign that the buses parked outside rebel-held areas would enter, and then word spread that the deal was on hold, and suddenly fighting erupted anew.
The booms of air strikes and artillery fire rang out, sowing panic across the five square kilometres (two square miles) of residential districts still held by rebels.
Terrified residents ran through the streets in a fruitless bid to find shelter, with some hiding in the doorframes of damaged buildings, AFP's correspondent said.
- Desperate messages to outside world -
The correspondent saw several wounded civilians as well as a regime tank turning its cannon towards opposition-held districts and opening fire.
Some residents took to Twitter, for many their only link with the outside word, to publish desperate messages from neighbourhoods under fire.
"Ceasefire is over. Everyone will be executed when Assad's forces and their thugs capture our liberated area," wrote Ismail Alabdullah, a member of the White Helmets rescue worker group which operates in rebel areas.
He posted a video of a grim, rainy neighbourhood inside Aleppo rocked by the boom of air strikes.
The scene was worlds away from the calm but downcast atmosphere at dawn just hours earlier on Wednesday.
Crowds of civilians had gathered in the chilly streets to await evacuation, after weeks of heavy government fire and a siege that left food supplies scarce.
Entire families had slept in the open, despite the cold and a fierce storm that brought heavy rain and high winds.
Some set fire to their cars or motorcycles to prevent them being confiscated by the regime, and rebels even set alight heavy weapons so that they would not be seized by government troops.
The atmosphere was funereal, AFP's correspondent said. "Everyone around me is crying," he said.
Many feared they had seen their homes for the last time and might never be able to return to the city.
- Devastated by siege -
Civilians have been desperate to escape the increasingly dire conditions in the east, which has been ground into rubble by bombing.
In one local hospital, bodies had lain in rows on the floor for days, with relatives too afraid to identify and collect them for burial because of the ferocity of the bombardment.
Wounded residents with exhausted, emaciated faces were taking shelter inside the clinic, which was at capacity.
Amputees lay on the cold floor as all the beds were full, and others shared the few blankets available to try to stay warm.
Doctors said they were spending their night inside the facility to care for victims with the few remaining medical supplies they had.
The government's suffocating five-month siege of east Aleppo has created shortages of medicine and food supplies, leaving residents gaunt and weak.
As fighting intensified in recent days, many could find nothing but a few dates to eat, AFP's correspondent said.
In the early morning, as she prepared to leave, a mother carried her infant child and bags of belongings under the freezing rain, among them a single box of baby formula.
The container suddenly fell to the ground, its contents spilling out.
Desperate, the woman rushed to scoop up the precious powder now mixed with the mud underfoot.
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Wednesday, December 14th 2016
Karam al-Masri
           


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