Akram al-Ahmad writes: Samira Sabagh was sitting on the ground when I met her, and the first thing I noticed was that her hands and face were almost black. She was wearing a traditional green dress that smelled of smoke. She was about 65, just one of more than 100,000 former residents of eastern Aleppo forced to leave the rebel-held area under threat of annihilation by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
Sabagh was disoriented. Her children and all her family had been killed in Aleppo, with the exception of a daughter living in Idlib, not far from here. “I don’t know how to go to Idlib,” she said, referring to the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province where many of the displaced Syrians were fleeing.
I asked her about the soot on her face. It’s bitterly cold in Aleppo now, she explained, and people were living in the streets for a week waiting for the evacuation to begin. So everyone had to burn shoes, plastics — anything they could get to stay warm, and that left her face and hands covered in soot. She told me the story through tears.
Rashidin, the town on the western edge of Aleppo city where the buses arrived with the newly displaced, is the last place on the Aleppo-Damascus highway that one can reach from rebel territory. Rebels call it point zero. Every exiled Syrian brought here had soot on their hands and faces. Their clothes reeked. Their bodies smelled as if they hadn’t bathed for a month. Almost everyone said they had burned their furniture, automobile tires, even clothes and blankets, for heat. And some burned their possessions rather than let them fall into the hands of the pro-government militias.
I had driven here with a cameraman from the news bureau I manage in Idlib, a journey of a little more than an hour. In the gas station parking lot where the buses arrived, I heard tale after tale of what residents of eastern Aleppo endured during the devastating bombing campaign and starvation siege of the rebel-held enclave — traumas that were exacerbated by the mocking of pro-regime militiamen as they abandoned their city. And now they were stranded in the bitter cold with no idea what comes next, forced to rebuild their shattered lives once more.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross had organized the buses after rebels reached a deal with the government to withdraw from eastern Aleppo in exchange for safe passage for their families and other civilians who feared the revenge of the militias. When they came off the buses, everyone was shivering from the cold. They were hungry, and local charities handed out fruit and small food packages. They looked tired and depressed as they sat on the ground, eating them. The best organized were the rebel groups, which sent buses and minibuses to fetch the families of fighters and transport them to secure lodging.
But most had no idea where to go and sat on the ground debating their next move. “I hear Atarib is a good town to stay in. I will go and look for an apartment,” one man told me, speaking of a town close to the Turkish border that is often the target for regime airstrikes.
The only joyful sound came from some of the children, who acted as if they’d landed in paradise. The elders were silent and bewildered, looking as though they’d just stepped out of the grave. [Continue reading…]