Both Russian and Syrian airstrikes have for months targeted homes and hospitals in Aleppo
‘Anything that moves on the road is attacked’, says Aleppo resident of the now cut-off Castello Road aid relief route
Responding to this morning’s announcement from Russia’s Defence Minister that Russian forces were coordinating a “humanitarian operation” to allow civilians and fighters who lay down their arms to leave the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:
“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.
“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 sceptical about government promises.”
Many civilians are likely to be sceptical of any Syrian government promises of safety and may choose not to leave for fear of reprisals. Amnesty is insisting instead that unfettered and impartial humanitarian assistance must be provided for the thousands of civilians in Aleppo, many of whom are on the verge of running out of food and other essential supplies.
The city’s only aid supply route, the Castello Road, has been cut off by Syrian government sniper fire and heavy shelling since 7 July. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 99 civilians - including 25 children, 16 women and 58 men - were killed in Aleppo between 10 July and 23 July by Syrian government forces, with 14 killed on the Castello Road.
Five local humanitarian organisations have told Amnesty that food reserves in Aleppo could run out in as little as two weeks’ time, and UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has similarly warned that food in Aleppo is expected to run out by mid-August, with between 200,000 and 300,000 people 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 spoke to residents trapped inside Aleppo as well as to ten doctors and several humanitarian organisations in wider Syria and Turkey. The testimony (see below) gathered paints a desperate picture of what has unfolded over the past 20 days. Many of the deadliest attacks have occurred on populated residential neighbourhoods 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.
In February, Amnesty accused Syrian and Russian forces of targeting hospitals as a strategy of war, while in May 2015 Amnesty also documented barrel bomb and other attacks on civilians by the Syrian government forces in Aleppo.
Castello Road - ‘road of death’
A humanitarian worker told Amnesty that the 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 told Amnesty how he and his family made a harrowing escape risking their lives to cross the 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 metres 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.”
“Hala” (name changed for security reasons), an Aleppo resident, told Amnesty 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 [£10]. I cannot afford to buy the very few vegetables available.”
“Hussam”, another Aleppo resident and father of two boys, told Amnesty: “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 or empty-handed.”
Air strikes on homes and hospitals
Life in Aleppo has been made even worse by the relentless air strikes and heavy shelling by Syrian government forces. Residents and doctors told Amnesty that the city, in particular al-Sakhour, al-Shaar and al-Fardous neighbourhoods, have sustained daily aerial attacks over the past ten days.
“Maen” 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 neighbourhood, 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.”
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.
Meanwhile, seven hospitals and medical facilities in Aleppo were attacked by air strikes in the space of ten 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 that air strikes had damaged two warehouses and partially destroyed medical and food supplies. Another 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.”