Families flee Aleppo on foot for dear life

Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) –


After braving the cold and violent clashes to escape embattled east Aleppo with his family, Yasser said he felt as though he had been "reborn".

The 40-year-old father of eight tried for a week to flee the devastated rebel-held neighbourhood of Salhine with his children, wife and mother, like many other families, before finally succeeding.

On Thursday, hundreds of families, most of them from Salhine, arrived in Aziza, a southeastern suburb of Aleppo, after rebel-held areas in the east of the city fell one by one to the advancing Syrian army.

"I feel reborn," said Yasser, as he tugged at a cart stacked with luggage and his ailing mother sitting on top.

His family fled east Aleppo after the death of his 15-year-old son who he said was killed when a shell hit their home.

Three weeks into a major offensive to retake all of Aleppo, government troops have captured about 85 percent of territory rebels controlled in the city's east and were still pushing forward on Thursday.

The assault has prompted a mass exodus from east Aleppo where at least 80,000 people have fled their homes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Families like Yasser's fled on foot for several hours before reaching Aziza.

Abdel Hamid said that on six different occasions he tried to flee Salhine with his wife and 10 children but always retreated before finally making it to Aziza on Thursday.

He was heartened to leave when he heard people around him saying that passages had been opened for the evacuation of civilians.

"Most of the people around me were saying 'in any case we will die, so let's leave together'. That encouraged me and we left," he added.

As he gathered with his wife and his children in a muddy field along with dozens of other families who like him chose to flee, Abdel Hamid said his escape was the right decision.

- 'Closer to life' -

"I left my house behind... but I have secured my children's right to live," he said.

"With each step I took I felt like I was getting closer to life itself."

In Aziza, the families wait in the biting cold to be taken to shelters while some make preparations to join relatives in government-controlled areas.

Since 2012, Syria's second city Aleppo has been divided into a rebel-held east and a government-controlled west.

Children, looking tired and afraid, stay close to their parents.

Nour, 19, left the rebel-held district of Ferdous early in the morning with her parents, hastily packing a few bags which are now stacked on a stroller that she pushes.

"It took us five hours to get here," she said.

"I am overjoyed. I was starving and I was just dreaming of food."

Civilians in east Aleppo have lived for months under heavy bombardment and a regime siege and faced severe food and fuel shortages.

An estimated 250,000 civilians lived in east Aleppo before the government launched its latest offensive to retake all of the city and it's unclear how many still remain there.

Among those left behind is Nour's father who was prevented from leaving by the rebels who fired warning shots into the air, said his wife Khadija, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Khadija said she plans to go and live with her sister in a government-held area. "I haven't seen her in four years. I miss her so much."

But Hussein Aafi said he feels no joy in escaping because he was unable to get out one of his daughters.

"We couldn't reach her because the phone lines were down," he said.