Monday, December 19, 2016

The Journey Of Fear For The Exiles Of Aleppo

When the bus stopped at the first dam held by the Syrian army, the dozens of passengers evacuated from Aleppo suddenly became silent, gripped by fear.

During the two hours that this trip to exile lasted, the anguish did not leave them. At every moment they feared to fall into the hands of those who had driven them to leave their quarters besieged for five months.

Correspondents from AFP and other residents of the former rebel districts of Aleppo have testified to the tension that reigned Monday on the buses transporting them out of their city, about to be completely regained by the regime, Territories still held by the rebels west of the former economic capital of the country.

Before leaving, for this 12 km journey, many take photos of Alep with their mobile phones. "Maybe we will never see our city again," says one of them, dejected as an old man burst into tears.

Undermined by hunger, most passengers have their faces emaciated to the point that even between knowledge, some do not recognise themselves after having lived months of siege, to protect themselves from incessant bombardments.

- Terrified passengers -

Many have their faces blackened by the smoke that has emerged when they have burned their clothes to warm themselves while waiting in a polar cold the possibility of getting on the buses.

In order to reach the rebel zone, they have to cross three more and more challenging checkpoints held by the forces that bombed and besieged them: that of Bashar al-Assad's army, that of the Russians, and the third held by Iranian and Iraqi militiamen, all allies of the regime.

"This one is the most dangerous," says a 45-year-old man. The conversations are interrupted at once.

"I was aboard a bus a few days ago when the Iranian dam stopped us," he told AFP.

"They compelled us to go downstairs, they beat us, and I am afraid that this will happen again," he said, addressing the other terrorised occupants who stealthily looked at the militiamen.

But this time, the buses pass. But it was at the second checkpoint, the one held by the Russians, that they experienced their biggest fright.

Armed with bomb detectors and wearing bulletproof vests, blond soldiers stopped the bus for 30 minutes, taking out all the luggage from the bunker to search them thoroughly.

Smell of vomit

"Does anyone want to go down to Hamdaniye?", A district of Aleppo in the hands of the regime and who therefore escaped the siege, asks one of the soldiers to the passengers through a translator. No one raises their hand and the bus finally pursues its way.

Thousands of other starters, such as Ahmad Raslane, were less lucky the day before.

"We left Aleppo on Sunday at 15.00 (1300 GMT). We stayed on the buses until Monday at noon," he told AFP.

His bus had crossed the regime dam, that of the Russians but was detained at the checkpoint controlled by the Iranian and Iraqi militias.

"We were treated in an odious way, they did not even give us a glass of water," he said.

"The buses smelled like vomit because the kids kept coming," said the 23-year-old.

As militiamen forbade passengers to get off buses, some used plastic bags for their needs before throwing them out the window, testifies one of the photographers of the AFP who was on board.

The militiamen did not even allow the occupants of the bus to turn off the lights to allow the children to sleep.

After 16 hours of anxious waiting, explosion of joy: the convoy is allowed to continue its way.

Deprived of sleep and food, the exiles of Aleppo finally arrive in rebel territory, in Rachidine, west of the metropolis.

They throw themselves into each other's arms, many wept. At the reception, men bear the names of their relatives or acquaintances on placards.

Young Alepins swallow bananas, a fruit they have not tasted for months.

Some look at the insurgents trembling and armed, unable to believe that they are not soldiers of the regime.

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