ALEPPO, Syria: Aleppo is central to President Bashar Assad’s goal of rescuing a viable state from the ruins of Syria; hence the grim message from his forces to its residents, that one equals five.
“We told them every shell [they fire] equals five barrel bombs,” said Ammar, a local policeman, who argued that any civilians hit by the highly destructive improvized weapons deserved it for tolerating “terrorists.”
“They didn’t believe us and they continued launching shells, so the army responded with a pounding of barrel bombs.”
The battle for Aleppo ebbs and flows – the rebels regained some high ground at the weekend – but Assad’s forces continue to strike back, dropping barrel bombs from helicopters on several rebel-held districts in the east.
The military ramped up its offensive in December, pummeling civilian areas with scores of barrel bombs.
In six weeks, they killed more than 700 people, mostly civilians, and forced tens of thousands more from their homes.
Khadija and her six children fled their home in the eastern district of Sukkari when it was struck by a barrel bomb in late January.
They passed through the “death crossing” – a 100-meter stretch of sniper territory between Aleppo’s eastern and western halves – hoping for a better life on the other side.
“When we reached the government side, the soldiers viciously beat us with a stick,” she said.
Denied a residency permit to live in government-held territory, they sleep wherever they find shelter, moving every few days to evade security forces.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Monday that satellite images showed 340 sites hit in opposition-controlled Aleppo between early November and late February. The damage appeared “strongly consistent with the detonation of highly explosive unguided bombs.”
Western powers have condemned the use of barrel bombs as a war crime, but they continue to fall nearly every day in Aleppo and other parts of Syria where more than 140,000 people have died in three years of war.
The bombardment has uprooted thousands of people, some of whom fled to neighboring Turkey while others, like Khadija, moved to government-controlled areas of Aleppo, where they have been forced to camp on the street, in parks and schools.
Abeer, an Aleppo-based researcher with the Jesuit Refugee Service, said Assad’s forces were even bombing government-held districts once controlled by rebels as part of what she called a government “policy of collective punishment.”
“They continue to strike neighborhoods with barrel bombs to punish their residents for embracing the opposition fighters when they entered,” she told Reuters.
Some of those forced to flee live on the streets, often with only a flimsy tarpaulin for shelter. Others have sought cover in school buildings, packed into classrooms by the dozen even as pupils attend lessons, stirring social tension in a city once reknown for its religious and political diversity.
“Aleppo is enduring a dreadful type of social fragmentation because of the hatred between its residents, and the increased number of displaced people has deepened this fragmentation,” Abeer said.
Abdel-Jabbar and his family escaped a barrel bomb attack in January, but have since lived as outcasts in a public garden on the other side of the city.
Security forces forbade them from living with relatives in a government-held district, he said. “The authorities impose residency restrictions on us as if we are strangers in our own country.”